12 December 2017

Liverpool v West Brom 12.13.17

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Gold

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.16.17
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.22.16
1-1 (a) 05.15.16
2-2 (h) 12.13.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Everton (h); 7-0 Spartak (h); 5-1 Brighton (a)
West Brom: 0-1 Swansea (a); 0-0 Palace (h); 2-2 Newcastle (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 13; Firmino 5; Coutinho, Mané 4; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Can, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
West Brom: Robson-Kanu, Rodriguez, Rondon 2; Chadli, Evans, Field, Hegazi, Morrison, Phillips 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Lovren Klavan Milner
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Mané Firmino Coutinho

Sunday was the Sam Allardyce Redemption Match, and now we get Alan Pardew as a second act. Fantastic. The magical manager tour is coming to take us away.

It shouldn't matter. And Liverpool should have been up for this match regardless, but now they've extra motivation after Sunday's miscarriage of justice.

Maybe we'll get the first choice front four, but I suspect rotation and rest will continue and this time it's Salah's turn. But even if that's the case, your guess remains as good as mine who will start and how they'll line up. As per usual of late.

Maybe the above. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flank with Coutinho in midfield. Maybe 4-4-2, with Sturridge, Solanke, or even Ings joining Firmino up top and one of Henderson, Can, and Wijnaldum left out. Moreno and Matip remain absent, but Adam Lallana returns to contention. Given it's his first game back in the squad after a short absence after a long absence, I suspect he'll be used as a substitute at most.

Whomever starts, in whichever formation, I expect a reaction to Sunday's disappointment. I expect blood and thunder, hellfire and brimstone. I expect – nay, demand – goals. Lots of them.

Especially since Liverpool's opponent is winless since August.

You live by Pulisball, you eventually die by Pulisball. And that's exactly what happened. West Brom finished 13th in 2014-15 after Pulis took over midway through the season, 14th in 2015-16, and 10th in 2016-17. It was exactly as expected: good enough and organized enough to stay up, but not a whole lot more, and a whole lot of ugly football. And then West Brom won its first three matches this season: 1-0 against Bournemouth and Burnley, 3-1 in the League Cup.

And then West Brom fell off a cliff. They'd draw four and lose seven in the next 11 games and Pulis would be fired with West Brom in 17th, just a point outside the relegation zone.

And now West Brom's contracted a severe case of Pardew-mania.

Pardew's played all three of West Brom's strikers in the front three of a 4-3-3 in his two matches in charge, but Klopp doesn't think that'll be the case tomorrow. McClean, Brunt, and Burke are all more orthodox wingers, as are Chadli, Phillips, and Brunt if they're available. Incidentally, West Brom are yet to score since Pardew became manager despite playing three strikers in a front three.

My guess at tomorrow's XI is still pretty close to the side we've seen from Pardew's two games. Foster; Nyom, Hegazi, Evans, Gibbs; Livermore, Yacob, Field; McClean, Rondon, Rodriguez. Morrison, Barry, and Dawson are absent through injury, while Chadli, Phillips, and Brunt are doubtful. If any of the doubtful three are available, they'd be definite possibilities on the flanks. Krychowiak could also start in midfield in place of Field.

Pardew doesn't have the same history of frustrating Liverpool that Allardyce has, but we've had our moments. His first meeting with Klopp's Liverpool saw Palace win 2-1. His record for Newcastle and Palace against Rodgers' Liverpool was 2W-2D-3L. He is one of that tribe of perpetual Premier League managers whose career goal seems to be to take charge of every single club outside the top six.

And Pardew's style is more attacking than Allardyce, but it won't be that much more attacking. The remnants of Pulisball still linger. West Brom remain tough to beat: 0-4 v Chelsea – Pulis' last match – and 0-2 at Arsenal are West Brom's only losses by more than one goal. Only Chelsea and City have scored more than twice against West Brom. West Brom haven't scored in Pardew's two matches, but they've only conceded once: Swansea's late winner from a fortuitous corner scramble on Saturday.

Hegazi's big like West Brom's center-backs are always big, but can actually play a little. Jonny Evans was supposedly wanted by Manchester City last summer. Barry and Yacob can ugly up a game in midfield, Rondon and Rodriguez are handfuls on both counter-attacks and set plays.

But if Liverpool can do Liverpool – the Liverpool we saw in seven wins while scoring three goals over the last ten matches, not the Liverpool which fumbles and frustrates and concedes from a late stupid mistake, mind you – it won't matter. It shouldn't matter.

11 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: Spartak Moscow (h), Brighton (a), Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

We have said it before, we will say it again.

Liverpool live and die by the goals they score. And they only scored one on Sunday.

The finishing pixie is a cruel mistress. Liverpool had been on an almost unsustainable scoring streak. That ended against Everton.

The three above pieces showing Liverpool's shooting should be sufficient. That shots, assists, chances created graphic. That shot-by-shot graphic. That shot location graphic. Ouch.

23 Liverpool shots, but only three on-target: Salah's goal, Mané's egregious bicycle kick attempt from just outside the box, and Coutinho's free kick from 30 yards out. 13% shooting accuracy, when the side had averaged 42.5% in the six previous league matches since the Tottenham defeat.

Three Opta-defined clear-cut chances, all with Liverpool up 1-0, and all off-target: Mané's miss with three players waiting for the tap-in, and Salah and Gomez's second-half headers. Liverpool converted 13 of 18 clear-cut chances – 72.2% – in the six previous league matches since the Tottenham defeat.

Sure, Liverpool's shot quality was a good deal worse than in previous matches. 13 of 23 from outside the box, and an average xG per shot of 0.087. Liverpool's xG per shot this season prior to Sunday's game was 0.116 and since Spurs it had been 0.149.

But Liverpool still had the chances to win that game.

One of which will live long in the memory.

This game hinged upon two moments. Sadio Mané's miss in the first-half added time was the first.

*screams internally*

Remember Liverpool's second goal against Spartak Moscow? Mané to Salah to Firmino to Coutinho. Quick passes, unselfishly looking for a teammate rather than doing it yourself. The final pass taking the chance quality from – and this is a rough guess here – something like 15% to 40%. Do that. Always aim to do that. Don't do this.

If Liverpool get a second goal, going into halftime two-up rather than one, there's an excellent chance that Liverpool score more. Everton have to come out, whereas they can stick deep and continue to hope for just one moment and one mistake at 1-0, and even though two of Liverpool's best counter-attacking players weren't on the pitch, Salah and Mané should have thrived with more space in behind compared to how the match played out at 1-0. Two Liverpool goals had led to at least three in eight of the previous nine matches. Liverpool have finished with just two goals twice this season, and never in the league, and it hasn't happened since early September.

But 1-0 still should have been enough. Because Everton's penalty in the 77th minute was the second moment. And that was not a penalty. (Edit: I don't know why the GIFs aren't loading here; click on them to open in a new window and play)

Come on, now.

Okay, yes, camera angles can lie.

So, here, this is a worse angle for Lovren – which unfortunately, was also the referee's angle – but you can still see Calvert-Lewin move towards and into Lovren, then fall to the ground as Lovren's pulling his arms away from him.

I don't care that Lovren's caught on the back foot and gets too close and "gives the referee a decision to make." I don't care that Lovren has previous, which makes us extra likely to extra blame him. That you're giving that penalty against Liverpool on Liverpool's own ground when Everton have had just two shots and next to no possession is a crime against humanity. Especially after the non-penalty which Brighton got last weekend. That was forgivable because Liverpool were cruising by that point. That made it almost funny. This was assuredly not funny.

I also can't help but think that was Grade A "Big Sam's an English manager and Calvert-Lewin's an English striker" beef.

Without one of those two moments, the other doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter that Liverpool rotated more heavily than expected, that Liverpool left out both Firmino and Coutinho, as well as Can and Wijnaldum. Liverpool should have done enough, even if 1-0 is rarely ever enough for this side.

And now we get a result that brings memories to the mediocre old days. Liverpool's fifth 1-1 draw of the season, the most common score line so far. Three of those 1-1 draws came with Liverpool taking the lead but losing it – the last three of them.

The mediocre old days of an inability to break down incredibly deep sides, with a bunch of possession and a bunch of shots but not enough good shots and not enough of those shots converted. The mediocre old days of drawing a match that Liverpool *should* have won against a side they *should* be beating. Something we thought we'd mostly gotten past with the wins over Huddersfield, Maribor, West Ham, Southampton, Stoke, Brighton, and Spartak.

So, yes, it's a set-back. But it's not the end of days. It's one match, one during a spell overloaded with matches, against seven before where Liverpool did what they couldn't on Sunday.

10 December 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Salah 42'
Rooney 77' [pen]

We've been Allardyced. And Pawsoned. And it's really damned annoying.

But the story is still the story we've known before, even if it's been awhile since seeing that story. If Liverpool don't score more than one, Liverpool are at risk of doing a Liverpool. Which is exactly what happened, even if it was never a penalty because come the hell on.

It's everybody's fault.

It's Sam Allardyce's fault, because he made the game exactly as ugly as he always does. That felt more like a Sam Allardyce match than a Merseyside Derby. Not ugly as in vicious, which these games can be, but ugly as in the least ambitious side Liverpool's faced this season. Which is completely their right, and proven right. Two massively, massively deep lines of four, the most possession Liverpool have had in a match this season. The most since losing 0-2 to Burnley in August 2015, actually.

It's Jürgen Klopp's fault, because Liverpool couldn't cope with the ugly. Because Klopp kept Firmino and Coutinho out, again using the full squad to prevent the winter collapse which happened last season. Because he continued to make unexpected changes to the starting XI but this time got burned. Because that 4-3-3 couldn't play through the middle because Henderson and Milner aren't creative enough and Mané and Salah were too wide, and crossing did not work. Eight Liverpool shots in the first 41 minutes of the match: three off-target, five blocked. Five from outside the box, just one in the Danger Zone.

It's not Mohamed Salah's fault, because in the 42nd minute, Mohamed Salah did Mohamed Salah things, turning Cuco Martina, beating Idrissa Gana, and curling an unstoppable shot past Pickford to finally break the deadlock. His 13th goal in the league this season, his 19th goal in all competitions. He's really good at the football.

It's Sadio Mané's fault, because just before halftime, Mané wins possession and steams towards goal and he's got three runners inside for a tap-in and he screws a left-footed shot wide of the goal. That was Liverpool's first clear-cut chance of the game. And 2-0 kills the game. It kills it dead. Liverpool desperately needed 2-0. Liverpool would not get 2-0. This remains unforgivable.

It's Jürgen Klopp's fault, because he took off Liverpool's best player in the 67th minute. That was Klopp's adjustment to Allardyce's changes. Not Can or Wijnaldum for bodies in midfield. Not Coutinho for creation. Firmino – who is a very good player who I like very much but does the pressing more than anything else and that's not what was needed – for Salah. I understand worries about player overload, especially in regards to Salah, but we've proven time and time again that 1-0 isn't enough for Liverpool.

And 1-0 wasn't enough today. Even though Everton had next to no possession, even though Everton had all of two shots to that point, both from well outside the box and not dangerous in the slighest.

It's Craig Pawson's fault, because that was almost as soft a penalty as Brighton's in Liverpool's last match. It's Dejan Lovren's fault because he did a Dejan Lovren thing again. It's Firmino's fault, because he tried an incredibly unlikely back heel to try to get a doubly-marked Mané a chance at goal and lost possession and now Liverpool have five players ahead of the ball (including both left-sided players) and Everton countered down Liverpool's left side and Rooney crossed to Calvert-Lewin from deep and Calvert-Lewin fell over because Lovren looked in his direction.

And it's Liverpool's fault. Because, once again, Liverpool lost a one-goal lead they took into the 70th minute. As at Watford, against Sevilla, at Sevilla, and against Chelsea. Because, once again, Liverpool couldn't find a needed late winner; the last time Liverpool got one after the 70th minute was 2-1 at Stoke last April. The last time Liverpool got one after the 80th minute was at Everton almost a calendar year ago. Because, once again, substitutions did little and the other manager's changes helped more than Liverpool's.

23 shots to three. 79% possession. And Liverpool drew. Because they couldn't create more chances, they couldn't take the few chances they did create, and then they committed one soft, unlucky, and stupid mistake that a referee absolutely helped. And then dropped points from a winning position for the fifth time this season and the 23rd time since Klopp became manager. Against the team you want to beat more than any other.

It is absolutely infuriating.

But here's the thing. Liverpool are still unbeaten in their last 10 matches. Liverpool are still fourth, a point ahead of Arsenal and two ahead of Tottenham. Everton still haven't won a Merseyside Derby since Roy Freaking Hodgson was manager. Mo Salah remains amazing, Joe Gomez is an absolute prodigy, and on the whole, Liverpool did more good things than bad things today. In the seventh match the side's had to play in the last three weeks.

Still. It could have been more. It should have been more. And – not to be too selfish after all the good we've seen over the last eight weeks – it's certainly not for the first time this season.

09 December 2017

Liverpool v Everton 12.10.17

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.01.17
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.19.16
4-0 Liverpool (h) 04.20.16
1-1 (a) 10.04.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 7-0 Spartak (h); 5-1 Brighton (a); 3-0 Stoke (a)
Everton: 3-0 Apollon (a); 2-0 Huddersfield (h); 4-0 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 12; Firmino 5; Coutinho, Mané 4; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Can, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Everton: Rooney 7; Niasse 5; Baines, Calvert-Lewin, Sigurðsson 2; Williams 1

Referee: Craig Pawson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren Klavan Milner
Mané Can Henderson Coutinho
Salah Firmino

This seems like a good place to start:

It is a mischievous question to Jonjoe Kenny that may require some thought.

What is preferable? Winning the Under 20 World Cup or ending an 18-year winless streak at Anfield in the Merseyside derby?

No hesitation. “Winning the derby,” he says, snappily. “Everything I have ever wanted is win a derby. To go to Anfield to win? I don’t think you would get much better.”

Liverpool haven't lost a Merseyside Derby since October 2010 – since Roy Hodgson! – 15 derbies before tomorrow's. Liverpool haven't lost a derby at Anfield since September 1999. Jürgen Klopp's won his three derbies by a combined 8-1 margin.

This is the history that Everton has to cope with. And these are the expectations that Liverpool has to cope with.

It's seemingly a good time for Liverpool to play one of its most important matches of the season, at least for the supporters. They're unbeaten in nine with seven wins and two draws. They've won their last three matches by a combined 15-1 margin, including 5-1 and 7-0 wins in the last two. Liverpool's attacking superstars – Coutinho, Salah, Firmino, and Mané – are simply taking folks to the woodshed, but Liverpool have also kept clean sheets in five of those last nine, including four of the last five at Anfield.

Moreno is the only new player ruled out – and I very much expect to see Milner instead of Robertson tomorrow – although I guess I'll mention that multiple outlets ran with a "Coutinho not pictured in training!" story yesterday. For what that's worth. I'd be surprised if he missed out, but let's not pretend I have any special insight.

I suspect the larger question is Liverpool's formation. 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 or something else? It remains wild that I'm writing that sentence after we saw 4-3-3 in literally every match for 12 months, no matter personnel or opposition.

I'm often of an "if it ain't broke..." mindset. And Liverpool certainly ain't been broke lately. But the above XI could clearly line up in 4-3-3 – as we thought would happen prior to kick-off against Spartak, and I suspect it'll be that XI whether Liverpool decide to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. I remain concerned about Henderson in a double-pivot, I'd be concerned about both Coutinho and Milner ostensibly on the left given that neither is left-footed.

That is also almost exactly the same XI as against Spartak on Wednesday, with Henderson, Milner, and Mignolet for Wijnaldum, Moreno, and Karius the only changes. And we've usually seen one or two more changes over the last few weeks, given Klopp's emphasis on fresh players to maximize Liverpool's style. So, maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain. Maybe Sturridge or Solanke. Maybe even Lallana, who's back in full training and available. I've been guessing wrong a lot more than guessing right lately, and given results compared to guessing right a lot more often last season, I'm okay with that.

Whichever formation, and whomever starts, the game plan remains the same. Attackers attack, early and often, from all angles. Defenders defend. Midfielders support where needed, more often slightly deeper than we saw earlier in the season.

Get at these, no matter local rivalries. Do you, do what's succeeded in recent matches against varying opponents.

Meanwhile, Everton ain't doing too badly, at least compared to doing really, really badly for the first few months of the season. They've won three consecutive, after a spell where they won just once in 12.

They've got a new manager. We've met him before. Sam Allardyce.

Multiple clubs under Allardyce have foiled multiple incarnations of Liverpool. Including in Allardyce's last two matches: a 2-2 draw with Sunderland at Anfield with Liverpool throwing away a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes, and a 1-2 loss against Crystal Palace at Anfield despite Liverpool scoring first and scoring early.

There are players in this Everton squad who can hurt Liverpool. Calvert-Lewin on the break. Sigurðsson on set plays. Wayne Rooney loves playing against Liverpool, sometimes too much. Pickford is an excellent keeper, and there remains the worry a keeper will somehow play on turbo mode against Liverpool.

Everton have used pretty much the same XI in the last two league fixtures, the first before Allardyce was technically manager. 4-1-4-1, with Pickford; Kenny, Keane, Williams, Martina; Gueye; Lennon, Davies, Rooney, Sigurðsson; Calvert-Lewin. Everton, already eliminated from the Europa League with just one point through the first five group games, played a completely changed side in Cyprus – even Allardyce didn't bother to go – and I doubt any involved will start tomorrow, including Lookman, Klaassen, Schneiderlin, and Mirallas. McCarthy, Barkley, Funes Mori, Coleman, Bolasie, and Stekelenburg are out injured; Leighton Baines is doubtful. Both Keane and Jagielka are back after missing the last match.

We know how Allardyce will try to stop Liverpool. We know that Allardyce's alpha and omega will be stopping Liverpool, then maybe hoping for maybe a counter-attack or set play stomach punch. Defend deep, deny space, have a little kick at those dangerous Liverpool attackers. Maybe more than a little kick; it is a derby after all, where a referee might tend toward leniency. Frustrate, frustrate, frustrate.

It's worked against Liverpool before, both for Allardyce and for others. But not lately. Not when tried by Huddersfield, Maribor, Southampton, Brighton, or Stoke.

Now Liverpool have to do it again.

07 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 7-0 Spartak Moscow

Previous Match Infographics: Brighton (a), Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

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

That formation was not what we expected. Everyone, including UEFA, had it as a 4-3-3. Mané left, as usual. Salah right, as usual. Firmino central, as usual. Coutinho in midfield. But that was not how Liverpool played. Liverpool played 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2, depending on your preferred nomenclature, a similar formation to the side we saw at Stoke and West Ham, but with all four of Liverpool's superlative front four involved for the first time.

And if it confused us – people who watch Liverpool too devotedly, every single week – what do you think it did to Spartak?

It did this. 7-0, against a side that hadn't conceded more than twice in a match since August 19, whose only matches where they'd conceded more than two both came when Spartak had a player sent off.

A hat-trick for Philippe Coutinho, the first Liverpool hat-trick in more than two years. Two goals for Mané, a goal and assist for Firmino, a goal and two hockey assists for Salah.

7-0 for the second time this season, for the second time in eight weeks. 7-0 against two different group stage sides, one home and one away.

7-0 against Spartak Moscow, who conceded once, once, once, twice, and once in their other group stages games. 7-0 at Maribor who...

Liverpool's second goal's an excellent example of how these players can absolutely demolish any opponent, especially when in playing from positions the opposition didn't necessarily expect.

Mané picks up possession on the halfway line (as he also did in Liverpool's third and sixth goals), from Lovren's clearing header. Salah's dropped deeper this time, bringing Bocchetti with him, while Tasci's well behind the other three defenders out of the picture, trying to keep Firmino in front of him. And Eschenko's basically where he should be to keep an eye on Coutinho.

Firmino makes the run from inside to out, and Bochetti goes with him, trying to maintain the back four spacing, which creates the lane for Mané's pass to Salah. Eschenko has to come over to help, because Tasci's still way too deep to do anything about it. Which leaves space for a certain someone after Salah slips it in to Firmino.

Uh oh. And it's not as if this was Liverpool's only play. Firmino's in a fine place to shoot. There's a centering ball on for Salah, faster than Tasci and ball-side of Eschenko. But Firmino has the vision to find Coutinho. The most open player. The player who has the chance to take a shot most likely to go in.

"Uh oh" is damned right.

In this 7-0 win and Saturday's 5-1 win at Brighton, Liverpool have taken 29 combined shots. Coutinho, Salah, Mané, and Firmino took 26 of those. Those four players scored 10 of Liverpool's 12 goals – 11 if you want to give the front four (read: Coutinho) credit for Dunk's own goal on Saturday.

Liverpool did this with 17 shots yesterday and 12 last Saturday. Seven goals from 17, five goals from 12. 12 goals from 16 shots on-target combined. The finishing pixie is sprawled out, euphorically drunk, on the floor somewhere. Liverpool's shot accuracy has been bananas, Liverpool's shot conversion has been beyond bananas. It's probably somewhat unsustainable, but it's also been somewhat deserved. They're good shots, Brent. They're high-value shots, something Liverpool struggled with in its setbacks against bottom-half sides last season. Just as a brief example, Liverpool had three more clear-cut chances yesterday (seven) than Liverpool had shots from outside the box (four). I suspect you remember how often we screamed about outside-the-box shots last season.

So, the attack is attacking, which means that the defense can focus on defending. When the attack is this good, when the front four can create and score and do it themselves, the fullbacks and midfielders can play slightly deeper (although let's not downplay Milner's three assists in the second half here), a center-back's not striding forward to add another passer over the halfway line, and Liverpool's exposure to counter-attacks drops significantly.

And that's a big reason why while Liverpool have scored three or more goals in eight of their last nine matches, they've also kept a clean sheet in five of the last those nine. And it should be seven, if not for Willian's fluke and Brighton's non-penalty.

Liverpool have attacked well in the league of late; only City and United have scored more goals, and the 1-1 draw against Chelsea is the only match where Liverpool haven't scored at least three since late October. But we've really seen it in Europe. These poor sides – Hoffenheim, Maribor, Sevilla, and Spartak – often haven't known what's hit them. Two goals, four goals, two goals, one goal, seven goals, three goals, three goals, seven goals. Liverpool scored 23 goals in the group stage, the most any English side's gotten in the Champions League.

Those group stage sides only earned a few draws because Liverpool either wasted chances (see: Spartak away or, to a lesser extent, Sevilla at home) or did incredibly dumb things in defense (you know which match).

It's harder for Liverpool in the league, where most opponents have seen you before. Have played you before. In Europe, Liverpool have the advantage. There's only so much film you can watch, but then Coutinho's running at you, Salah's running behind you, Firmino's there but wait now he's there, they're coming from all angles, they're not stopping, and the ball's in the net. Again and again.

And, recently, Liverpool have been increasingly able to do it in the league as well.

Four all-world attackers, who are creating and converting at an insane pace.

Tactical flexibility, and a willingness to change the shape in order to both confuse the opponent and get the best out of those all-world attackers.

There's still pressing, but it's more around the halfway line than in the opposition half, which both draws out the opposition and gives Liverpool space to counter into, where they're creating and converting high-value chances.

A defense that's – more often than not, and more often than previously – actually protected, and can focus on defending.

And now, Liverpool are in the knock-out rounds of the Champions League for the first time since 2008-09. Where they'll play either Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Shaktar Donetsk, Porto, or Basel.

It's been fun lately. It's been very, very good football. But there's still loads more work to do, both in the league and Europe.

05 December 2017

Liverpool v Spartak Moscow 12.06.17

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2 and ESPN3

Previous Group results:
Liverpool: 3-3 Sevilla (a); 3-0 Maribor (h); 7-0 Maribor (a); 1-1 Spartak (a); 2-2 Sevilla (h)
Spartak: 1-1 Maribor (h); 1-2 Sevilla (a); 5-1 Sevilla (h); 1-1 Liverpool (h); 1-1 Maribor (a)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-1 Brighton (a); 3-0 Stoke (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h)
Spartak: 1-0 Arsenal Tula (a); 3-1 Zenit (h); 1-1 Maribor (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Firmino 6; Salah 5; Can 3; Alexander-Arnold, Coutinho 2; Mané, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sturridge 1
Spartak: Promes, Ze Luis 2; Fernando, Glushakov, L Adriano, Melgarejo, Samedov,1

Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren Klavan Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Coutinho
Salah Firmino Mané

Not that I necessarily know what "full-strength, first-choice" is anymore, but I'm guessing "full-strength, first-choice" tomorrow.

4-3-3, because despite all the tweaks and variations we've seen in recent weeks, that's what Liverpool have played in Europe and that's what Liverpool have played at home. Karius in goal, because Karius has been the Champions League keeper. Gomez and Klavan are fit again, so Gomez and Moreno at fullback, and Lovren and Klavan at center-back. Coutinho and two more from Henderson, Can, and Wijnaldum in midfield; I'm guessing Can left out because he's a yellow away from suspension (along with Moreno) but *shrugs*. And Firmino, Salah, Mané up front, to wreak all sorts of havoc.

But, sure, I wouldn't be all that surprised if we get Oxlade-Chamberlain or Sturridge or Milner somewhere in the front six. Liverpool have eight matches between now and New Years' Day. There's a Merseyside Derby on Sunday. I don't think I've guessed a lineup remotely correctly since Sevilla. And Liverpool have options, increasingly so going by the lineups and results we've seen over the last month. Which is fun.

Meanwhile, Spartak have lost just once in the 12 matches since hosting Liverpool, a 1-2 defeat at Sevilla in this competition. They were seventh in the Russian Premier League with 14 points from 11 games when we last spoke, now they're fourth with 34 points from 19 games. But they have kept just two clean sheets during that stretch: a 0-0 draw against Amkar Perm five weeks ago and a 1-0 win at Arsenal Tula last Friday.

Spartak played 5-4-1 the last time these sides met, but that's not Spartak Moscow's usual formation. They've used 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 in almost all of their matches since. Maybe Spartak stick with what worked, as they stifled Liverpool fairly well – even if Liverpool's wastefulness was as much a culprit – but Liverpool now has been a vastly more potent side than the Liverpool of two months ago.

No Spartak player who was available for the last meeting between these sides will miss tomorrow's match; Kombarov, Tigiev, and Ananidze remain absent. But both Promes and Glushakov – important players who missed for the last tie – will be available. Promes is obviously the most terrifying, with 10 goals and eight assists in the league and Europe this season. Either Gomez or Moreno are going to have their hands full tomorrow.

Let's guess Selikhov; Eschenko, Tasci, Kutepov, Dzhiklya; Popov, Fernando, Glushakov; Samedov, L Adriano, Promes. As usual, emphasis on guess. It could be 4-4-2. It could be 5-4-1. Luis Adriano, approaching Promes in terms of both output and potential damage, could play on the flank with Ze Luis starting as the central striker, in place of Samedov.

Spartak need a win to qualify for the knockout rounds, three points behind Liverpool and two behind Sevilla. Liverpool will progress with a draw, topping the group with a win tomorrow. The only way Liverpool advance with a loss is if Sevilla somehow fail to win in Maribor, which is incredibly unlikely.

It's safe to assume that Liverpool won't play for the draw. That's not what Liverpool do, that's not how Liverpool succeed. Liverpool will go for the throat. Liverpool will look to score, repeatedly, as they've often done over the last month, with at least three goals scored in seven of their last eight matches. With just six goals conceded at home all season, and only one in the last five matches.

Draws against Sevilla (twice) and Spartak have made qualification harder than it should have been. Liverpool have one more chance to remedy that.

04 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 5-1 Brighton

Previous Match Infographics: Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

We've seen more starting formations in the last four away matches than we saw throughout all of last season.

At West Ham, a very counter-attacking 4-4-2, which looked like 4-2-4 more often than not. Liverpool won 4-1.

At Sevilla, a reversion to the typical 4-3-3, a formation and style less familiar to European opponents than Premier League opponents. Liverpool went up 3-0 within 30 minutes, then I blacked out and I assume the game ended comfortably.

At Stoke, similar to West Ham but as much a 4-2-3-1 as a 4-4-2. Liverpool won 3-0.

And, now, at Brighton, the most confusing and surprising of the bunch, 3-4-3 with two midfielders as center-backs. Liverpool won 5-1.

Last season, Liverpool used three different starting formations by my count. In the entire season. A 4-4-2 diamond in the last two matches of the campaign as well as in the 1-1 at Manchester United in January; a wacky 3-5-1-1 with loads of changes and players absent in the 2-1 win at Stoke (switching to 3-4-3 when down at halftime); and the usual 4-3-3 in the other 43 matches.

Sometimes, writing out numerical formations doesn't help much. A 4-3-3 with Lallana and Wijnaldum in midfield will play far differently than one with Can and Coutinho; one with Sturridge, Firmino, and Mané in the front three will play far differently than one with Coutinho, Firmino, and Salah.

But tactics matter. Line-ups matter. And, yes, formations matter.

To put it bluntly, Liverpool were predictable last season, especially in fixtures like Saturday's. There were matches where it didn't matter – against Liverpool's peers in the top six; early in the season when Liverpool's style was less familiar to most opponents; or in a handful of matches where Liverpool simply blitzed the opposition regardless of personnel, style, or opposition. But there were matches where it did matter, and Liverpool's attack ran headlong into a brick wall, regrouped, and ran headlong into it again. And again. See: 0-2 Burnley, 0-0 Southampton (twice), 0-2 Hull, etc.

Liverpool have been far less predictable this season, especially over the last month. Especially in the types of matches where Liverpool struggled last season, and struggled earlier in the season: 1-1 Burnley, 1-1 Spartak, 1-1 Newcastle, etc.

Because this was exactly the type of match that Klopp's Liverpool have struggled in before.


Incidentally, Liverpool's home record against promoted sides is five wins, no draws, and no losses, with 15 goals scored, just two conceded.

Saturday's was a formation that got the best out of Liverpool's front three, and Liverpool were wholly reliant on that front three for shots and chance creation. And that front three came through, with the side set up in a way to play to their strengths despite what the opposition would look to accomplish. As at West Ham, as at Stoke, etc.

*long, low wolf whistle*

Saturday's match and Saturday's result wasn't easy, at least not as easy as the score line suggests. And a lot of it didn't make sense. But it's another needed win, with three or more goals scored and one or fewer conceded, as we've seen in six of the last eight matches. This formation and these tactics are another arrow in Liverpool's quiver, demonstrating the deeper squad and Klopp's greater tactical versatility than we saw in previous seasons, in previous disappointing results in fixtures like these.

We've seen fairly heavy rotation to go along with these tactical and formation tweaks, at least more than Liverpool were capable of last season. Salah, Coutinho, Firmino, Mané, Henderson, Can, and Moreno have all been used as substitutes, at most, in one of the three matches in the last nine days. Because we've seen two matches a week for the last couple of weeks now. And this is just the start. Liverpool still have eight more matches over the next 28 days.

After a disappointing September and beginning of October, Liverpool have set themselves up well for those next 28 days.

02 December 2017

Liverpool 5-1 Brighton

Can 30'
Firmino 31' 48'
Murray 51' [pen]
Coutinho 87'
Dunk OG 89'

3-0 Huddersfield, 3-0 Maribor, 4-1 West Ham, 3-0 Southampton, 3-0 Stoke, 5-1 Brighton. Patience, then potency. Set play, then counter then counter – which was also the 2013-14 Liverpool mantra – then set play then counter. No matter Brighton's completely nonsense consolation. And, no matter how often Liverpool get goals, it's the first time Liverpool have scored five in the league in more than a year.

Same again, then.

Not quite.

First and foremost, what the hell was that formation. Sure, Matip's injured, Gomez is ill, and Klavan hasn't trained because of illness. So, sure, let's go with 3-4-3. With Can and Wijnaldum as the wide "center-backs."

Liverpool's commitment to banter remains undefeated.

I mean, in theory, it makes some sense. You ain't really got a partner for Lovren. Brighton's gonna have next to no possession, not until Liverpool scores at least, so you might as well put two quick players who can pass there, with the potential for forward runs when Brighton get really, really deep.

But, then again, you played Wijnaldum and Can as center-backs.

And, early on, it went about as well as you'd expect. Liverpool had a couple of set play chances, with Firmino missing a free header from a corner in the fourth minute, but Liverpool also struggled to find space. Liverpool struggled to connect in a formation and XI that might have seen one session on the training pitch. And Brighton had the best chance in the first 29 minutes, with Brown getting a low cross in from the right on the counter, around Alexander-Arnold, behind Lovren, and to Glenn Murray, but Wijnaldum did *just enough* to force him into a close-range shot over the bar.

Liverpool possession, few Liverpool chances. One terrifying moment in defense.

Sounds about right.

And then Liverpool scored. And then Liverpool scored again.

Emre Can nails a header from Liverpool's second corner, exactly the type of bullet you'd want from your center-back. Barely a minute later, a textbook Liverpool counter-attack. Brighton kick-off, a hoof deep. Can's easy clearing header to Lovren to Firmino holding up at the halfway line, laid off to Salah with space to run. Around one, then a charge at terrified defenders, picking out Coutinho, a first-time low cross to Firmino. Boof. 18 seconds from kick-off to goal. A minute and 19 seconds from goal to kickoff to goal.

So, yeah, Liverpool can stutter through the first half in an unfamiliar formation, with tons of possession and hardly any shots, when Liverpool can be that potent twice in two minutes.

Lock down for the rest of the half, with a similar pattern of play to the first 30 minutes, but thankfully without any Brighton attacking. Which is completely fine with a 2-0 lead with this lineup.

Liverpool had done good things in first halves against Sevilla, Chelsea, and Stoke. And all three of those sides responded, to varying degrees, in the second half. What would Brighton do?

Nearly score within three minutes of the restart.

Brighton has more possession, needing to get back into the game with Liverpool happy to try to draw them out. Brown again finds space against Alexander-Arnold, taking advantage of the full-back's uncertain positioning. And the cross is perfect. And Glenn Murray's on the absolute door step. And he hits it really well. Not perfectly, but really well, controlled and low, making it truly hard for the keeper to get down.

And Simon Mignolet somehow saves it with his trailing leg. And Liverpool immediately blitzkrieg down the pitch and score again. Lovren hoof, Coutinho headed flick-on, Firmino lay-off to Coutinho, through to Salah, who zoom zoom zooms at goal, drawing two defenders away from Firmino, finding him with the reverse ball that's thumped into the net. 15 seconds from save to goal.

Good lord, that front three. It actually feels unfair sometimes.

So, now 3-0, with about the hardest stomach punch Brighton could suffer. That's that, then.

Come on. Act like you've been here before.

Brighton get a goal back within three minutes. For no damned reason. It's a Brighton corner. Brighton's first! Yes, we hate corners. But Firmino clears it! But Graham Scott, who's in his first season as a Premier League referee by the way, points to the spot for a Henderson push on Shane Duffy.

Jordan Henderson did not push Shane Duffy. Maybe it looks like that when your positioning is very, very bad, but that's not really an excuse. Henderson has a hand on Duffy's back. Duffy then jumps. Duffy then swan dives. Whistle. Spot kick. Goal.

If you're calling that, you're calling the same number of penalties as there are corners in the match. It's the most make-up of make-ups calls and you're not even making up for anything. You're just an inexperienced referee who actually feels bad for the stomach punch the home team just suffered.

And now Liverpool have license to fall apart.

But Liverpool don't fall apart! Brighton have too much possession, which makes us crazy because we have been here before, but Brighton are limited to two low-value set play chances which don't come close to threatening for the next half-hour. And Liverpool have better chances to extend the lead: Salah shooting straight at Ryan on the counter; Coutinho's shot that's absolutely going in blocked by Dunk's arm, more a penalty than Brighton's penalty; then Coutinho unnecessarily offside on another potential counter.

Brighton make subs, taking off both Knockaert and Brown. Liverpool finally make subs, replacing Salah with Oxlade-Chamberlain. Brighton's got one more chance, because we really are never allowed to feel safe, but Alexander-Arnold gets a bit of redemption in blocking Izquierdo's goal-bound effort (which Mignolet's maybe possibly saving) after the substitute sprinted away from Henderson far too easily.

And instead of the game petering out, Liverpool add two more through the absolute, indescribable, incomparable brilliance of Philippe Coutinho. First a free-kick replica of his goal against West Ham in the 2015-16 FA Cup: giving the wall the eyes, coaxing them into jumping as he places his shot under them. Then another Tasmanian Devil dribble dash at retreating targets, a probably-off-target shot on the run that's headed in by Lewis Dunk. Still might be one for the dubious goals panel.

Let's quickly recap Coutinho's day. Two assists, then a hockey assist. A free kick goal then single-handedly forcing an own goal. 5/6 successful dribbles, which felt like twice as many as that, just mindbogglingly good with the ball at his feet today. He's too good for words sometimes.

He wasn't the only one. Not in that front three. I can almost be as effusive about Firmino, while Salah still dominating the game without scoring thanks to his runs on those two counters.

Five goals. A nonsense XI. A nonsense penalty. Liverpool at their most potent. Liverpool 3-0 up against a promoted side and still somehow causing us palpitations.

Madness. Absolute madness. As if we've come to expect any less.

First, never play that XI again. At least not in that formation. A better attacking side punishes Liverpool. Probably repeatedly. Wijnaldum – and I feel bad for him – truly and unsurprisingly struggled in the position, unsure where to play out from that deep, unable to turn onto his left if and go up the flank if under any semblance of pressure. Playing Alexander-Arnold at wing-back makes him more capable in attack, but much more frightening in defense – the side of the game he's not as strong at. Similar, to a lesser extent, goes for Robertson.

But Liverpool probably don't play that XI or formation against a better side so *shrugs*. Horses for courses, after all.

Second, I truly appreciate when Liverpool's attack more than makes up for Liverpool's defense. Liverpool scored five goals, could have had three or so more. Mohamed Salah didn't have score any of them and Sadio Mané never made it off the bench.

This team is madness, for better and for worse. We've seen more better than worse lately, and fair bit of it. 25 Liverpool goals in Liverpool's last eight matches, with just six conceded: three in the aberration at Sevilla and West Ham's one, but also Chelsea's fluke and Brighton's that-was-never-a-penalty-I-will-never-forgive-you. With Liverpool rotating heavily in the last three matches, both due to injury and illness, but also to protect players and keep fresh legs with all these matches over this month.

It's gonna continue to be madness. Enjoy the ride.

01 December 2017

Liverpool at Brighton 12.02.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
6-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 02.19.12
2-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.21.11
3-2 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.30.91
2-2 (h; FA Cup) 01.26.91

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Stoke (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 3-3 Sevilla (a)
Brighton: 0-0 Palace (h); 0-1 United (a); 2-2 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 12; Mané 4; Coutinho, Firmino 3; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Brighton: Murray 4; Groß 3; Hemed, Izquierdo 2; Knockaert, March 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Alexander-Arnold Lovren Klavan Robertson
Wijnaldum Henderson Coutinho
Salah Firmino Mané

Not quite sure what we're getting from Liverpool here. Not that we're ever all that sure. In regards to formation, line-up, or performance.

In theory, it'd be another chance to use the 4-4-2 formation, even if that's also the formation that Brighton will likely play. Liverpool will be away, against a side that Liverpool will need to draw out, but also one that's good from the flanks, especially through Anthony Knockaert.

And it'd also give Liverpool a chance to hold some key players out ahead of next Wednesday's all-important Champions League decider.

But with Coutinho and Henderson rested at Stoke, you'd have to believe they'll both start tomorrow. And those players, more than any other in the front six, have trouble fitting into a 4-4-2 formation.

So we're probably likely to see something incredibly close to "full-strength" in the usual 4-3-3 formation. At least in the front six; Liverpool may still change players in defense. Liverpool will have to change at least one, with Matip out thanks to a minor muscle injury. Again. Gomez has started the last three matches, starting three consecutive for the first time this season, and Alexander-Arnold should come in at right-back. Although, if Klavan's still ill – he was still absent from training yesterday – Gomez might have to start at center-back. Alberto Moreno also seemingly has to get a rest sometime, as long as Andrew Robertson hasn't actually fallen into the Springfield Mystery Spot.

But I wouldn't expect the sort of changes we saw against Chelsea and Stoke, even with the short span between Wednesday and Saturday matches. There are four whole days between this and Spartak Moscow, after all.

Meanwhile, Brighton rarely seem to rotate much. Only Sidwell is definitely absent – and has been all season – while left-back Bong is a slight doubt. They'll play 4-4-2. They've been vastly better than I expected, for what little that's worth. Their games usually feature low goals totals, for both sides. Their last five league games have featured all of eight goals: 1-1 Southampton, 1-0 Swansea, 2-2 Stoke, 0-1 United, 0-0 Palace. Only six teams have scored fewer, only five teams have conceded fewer. City and Arsenal both won by 2-0 score lines, away and home respectively, but both teams had to put in work to do so.

If past is any precedent – which is no promise with two games this week – the XI will be Ryan; Bruno, Duffy, Dunk, Bong; Knockaert, Stephens, Propper, March; Groß, Murray. We might see Izquierdo on the left rather than March, and if Bong can't go it'll be Suttner at left-back.

Like Huddersfield. Like West Ham. Like Southampton, like Stoke. Liverpool have to go again. Get your goals – because that's what you do – and try not to do anything dumb at the back. Keep rolling in the league, against the sides that gave you so much trouble last season. One match at a time.

30 November 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Stoke

Previous Match Infographics: Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

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

Liverpool changed five of the front six players who started against Chelsea last Saturday; only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in just his third league start for Liverpool, kept his place. And Liverpool still won 3-0.

It's hard to complain about that.

The starters did *okay*. Liverpool used a 4-4-2 formation for just the second time this season, almost exactly the same lineup which won at West Ham but with Solanke making his full league debut. Liverpool scored early thanks to good work from all involved, especially the final three: Gomez, Solanke, and Mané. Liverpool created three clear-cut chances in the first half; only weak shots from Solanke and Mané prevented Liverpool from having a 3-0 lead at halftime rather than by the 83rd minute. Klopp recognized what was and wasn't working fairly early in the second half – a midfield frequently bypassed and Moreno frequently overloaded – and made changes.

And it was one of those substitutes who stole the show.

There have been 14 games in the league. 21 in all competitions. And Mohamed Salah already has 17 goals, with 12 of them in the league.

As the Liverpool Echo helpfully pointed out this morning, no Liverpool player has scored 17 goals before the end of November since Robbie Fowler in 1994-95. That Fowler season was the only time that a Liverpool player has scored 12 goals in the Premier League at a quicker pace. He had 12 in the 13th league game that season. Luis Suarez scored his 12 (and 13th) in the 14th league match in 2013-14 (after being suspended for the first five games, the absolute freak of nature). That's it as far as Liverpool goal-scorers go since the start of the Premier League.

This is where the announcer from NBA Jam should be shouting "HE'S ON FIREEEEEEEE" in your head.

Put another way. Mohamed Salah scored his 17th goal for Liverpool yesterday. Sadio Mané scored his 18th.

That's not to downplay the contributions of Sadio Mané, yesterday or in the season so far. He's only played in nine of Liverpool's league games and five of Liverpool's seven Champions League games this season due to suspension or injury, but still has five goals, just one less than at this point last season. Including the often-incredibly-important opener yesterday.

And Mané's contributing in more than just goals. It's only been 14 league games, but Mané is assisting at a much higher rate than in 2016-17. With five league assists last season, he averaged 0.20 per 90 minutes. Two for Firmino, one each for Coutinho, Can, and Lallana. His assist rate is up to 0.45 in the league and 0.42 in all competitions. Incidentally, all three of his league assists have gone to Mohamed Salah. Including the cross for Salah's first yesterday.

Liverpool were incredibly reliant on Sadio Mané last season. Now, with Salah in the form he's in, Liverpool are less so. Without one, we've still got the other. With both, look the hell out. Especially when you add Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Solanke, and Sturridge into the mix.

And, probably more importantly, we finally saw Liverpool keep a clean sheet in the league away from home. Sure, there were some unsurprisingly sketchy moments: most notably Mignolet's probably-should-have-been-a-red-card, but also Joe Allen's clear-cut chance eight minutes before Salah sealed the game.

It's a different match if Mignolet goes off. It's a different match if Allen scores. It feeds into the pervasive "Liverpool can't stop Liverpooling" narrative. And we weren't far away from that happening, with the middle third of the match fairly helter skelter.

But that didn't happen. And Liverpool kept the clean sheet. And also held their opponents to one shot on-target or fewer for the seventh time in 14 league matches. For all of Stoke's failings this season, this was just the second time they've been held scoreless at home this season, after an similar 0-4 drubbing against Chelsea two months ago. Sevilla aside, the defense hasn't been bad since the Tottenham debacle, and it's getting better. There will be failings. It's gonna happen. Prepare yourself now if, somehow, you haven't already. But it truly is getting better. Do it once, as at West Ham. Then do it twice, as at Stoke. It will get easier. It will get more consistent.

And Liverpool's performance at the sharp end is getting better and staying better. Liverpool's results since Tottenham: 3-0, 3-0, 4-1, 3-0, 3-3, 1-1, 3-0. Unbeaten with five wins and two draws, with the two draws coming due to a Moreno- and Henderson-inspired collapse and a fluke goal from Willian. Liverpool have scored three or more goals in six of these seven games. Liverpool have kept four clean sheets and conceded just once in two others.

Yes, those two draws were the only two matches against actually good opposition. Yes, Liverpool are still outside the top four, if only by two points. Yes, Liverpool had more points and better results at this stage last season, although the side was obviously helped by not being in Europe.

But, right now, Liverpool are also in a far better place to handle what's coming over the frantic next few months than they were last season. And right now, Liverpool are coming off a win.

28 November 2017

Liverpool at Stoke 11.29.17

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Gold

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.08.17
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.27.16
4-1 Liverpool (h) 04.10.16
0-1 Stoke (h; League Cup) 01.26.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 3-3 Sevilla (a); 3-0 Southampton (h)
Stoke: 1-2 Palace (a); 2-2 Brighton (a); 2-2 Leicester (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 10; Coutinho, Firmino, Mané 3; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Stoke: Choupo-Moting, Crouch, Diouf, Shaqiri 3; Fletcher, Jese, Zouma 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Alexander-Arnold Matip Klavan Robertson
Wijnaldum Can Coutinho
Salah Firmino Mané

"Fresh legs" against Chelsea means more options for Liverpool tomorrow. Firmino and Mané will definitely come back into the squad, most likely for Sturridge and Oxlade-Chamberlain. But there's a chance Salah gets a break; only Matip and Mignolet have played more league minutes so far. If that's the case, either Oxlade-Chamberlain keeps his place or Coutinho moves into the front three.

We'll see a few other changes as well. Alexander-Arnold will probably replace Gomez. Wijnaldum should take over for Milner, but maybe Lallana's an option as well. If we're going by minutes played so far this season, you'd have to think Moreno's in contention for a rest. We haven't seen Andrew Robertson in more than two months. And if Can's fit enough to start, Henderson could be left out as well; he looked completely shattered by the end of Saturday's match.

So far, Stoke this season feels like the Stoke of Tony Pulis' last season.

After three consecutive ninth-place seasons, Stoke are only three points outside the relegation zone. It's that "we've stopped getting better, now what?" feeling. They're bang average in goals scored, with Shaqiri, Choupo-Moting, Crouch, and Diouf contributing, but only Everton have conceded more league goals than Stoke's 26 through 13 league games. Stoke have kept just two clean sheets all season: a 1-0 win at Watford a month ago and, somehow, a 1-0 home win over Arsenal in August. Those are two of Stoke three league wins this season, along with a 2-1 win over Southampton at the end of September. They've won one, drawn two, and lost three of their last six games.

I've no idea if Hughes will rotate much with only four days since their last match, but their XI has been fairly consistent lately. Grant; Zouma, Shawcross, Wimmer; Diouf, Fletcher, Allen, Pieters; Shaqiri, Choupo-Moting, Jese. Maybe Sobhi starts in place of Jese; maybe Crouch plays up front, given height, set plays, and his history with Liverpool, but he's often more likely off the bench. Jack Butland's still out; Glen Johnson and Geoff Cameron remain doubtful.

1-0 against Arsenal and 2-2 against United were reasonably impressive home results, and should give Liverpool pause in thinking this could be a romp. But 0-4 against Chelsea and 7-2 at Manchester City also show that if Liverpool can get at them early - Chelsea had two goals by the 30th minute, City had three - this could be a hiding. Even considering what we've seen from Liverpool with a one-, two-, and three-goal lead.

Stoke had felt like a curse word in previous season. Especially on a Wednesday night, which will probably be wet. But they haven't been that Stoke this season. And Liverpool can't let them go back to being that Stoke tomorrow. Get over the past two disappointments. Get back to the 3-0 Huddersfield, 4-1 West Ham that we know Liverpool are capable of.

27 November 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Previous Match Infographics: Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

48 hours later, and it's slightly easier to stomach. 48 hours later, and it's easier to give Chelsea their due.

That was an excellent defensive performance.

Chelsea blocked a higher proportion of Liverpool's shots than any other Liverpool opponent since Klopp became manager. Nine of Liverpool's 16 shots were blocked – 56.25%. Only two other matches saw more than 50% of Liverpool's shots blocked: 12 of 23 (52.2%) in the 0-2 loss at West Ham in 2015-16 and seven of 13 (53.8%) in the 1-1 at United last season.

Liverpool didn't have a non-blocked shot from inside the box until Salah's goal in the 65th minute.

Only the losses at Manchester City (red card) and Tottenham (two-down before taking a shot) saw Liverpool attempt a higher proportion of shots from outside the box.

Chelsea made six successful tackles inside their own penalty box, more than any other Liverpool opponent this season: four on Salah and two on Sturridge, all six prior to Liverpool finally scoring.

That's what Liverpool's attack forced Chelsea to do. Which, unfortunately, they did quite well. Aside from one excellently-worked move between Salah and Coutinho, featuring Oxlade-Chamberlain's throughball and a slight deflection from Bakayoko.

It was Mo Salah's 15th goal in all competitions this season. It's not even December. Liverpool's top scorer in any full season since 2014-15 was Coutinho last season with 14.

And it's not as if Liverpool defended badly either.

Only Tottenham – a 2-1 Chelsea win – and Manchester City – a 1-0 City win – restricted Chelsea to fewer shots on-target. Those two games, as well as Chelsea's 3-3 home draw with Roma, were the only ones where Chelsea have had less possession than they did on Saturday. Only Arsenal, City, and Roma have held Chelsea scoreless this season.

And given Liverpool's frequent set-play failures, it's worth noting that Chelsea had eight corners and a handful of free kicks in dangerous positions with none truly threatening, a couple of blocked shots and off-target headers to show for it. Both Matip and Wijnaldum had better set-play chances at the other end of the pitch, despite Chelsea being a much taller side.

But Chelsea lucked into a goal five minutes from full-time. I don't care what Willian says. That was a fluke. That was an attempted cross to the back post. Maybe Mignolet could have moved quicker to adjust his feet, and Henderson should have done better when trying to clear Gomez's header earlier in the move, but it was unlucky for Liverpool and very lucky for Chelsea all the same. And it was just the second league goal that Liverpool have conceded at Anfield this season.

Again, it wasn't a bad performance, and it's not the worst result. Especially with three changes to the front six that's started the last two matches. Especially without both Firmino and Mané.

Liverpool needed to rest players – in order to press early, which Klopp understandably thought was the best way of unsettling Chelsea; because of the packed fixture list; and given how tired more than a few looked by the end of the match. Liverpool were playing the defending league champions, who'd scored four in each of their last two games, and who could and did rest a lot of players in their midweek Champions League match. Liverpool scored a good goal, Liverpool responded to the absolute failures in the second half at Sevilla last Tuesday.

And for long spells, Liverpool were the better side, even if not by much. And so this ends with the same result we've seen the previous two times these sides met in this fixture.

I'd feel a lot better about this had we not suffered similar disappointments too often already this season. Had we not seen yet another draw from a winning position, had we not seen yet another late goal conceded.

25 November 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Salah 65'
Willian 85'

Once again, we're stuck between context and isolation.

Let's do isolation first.

On balance, a draw's probably fair. Chelsea defended brilliantly throughout. Chelsea had the best spell of attacking pressure until the opening goal, with Mignolet required to make smart saves on Hazard and Zappacosta, as well as charge off his line to ensure Drinkwater didn't get to Hazard's through ball first, all in a five-minute span halfway through the first half.

Liverpool made five changes to the starting XI, including two in the front three, wanting fresh legs in order to press press press early on. Which Chelsea dealt with well for the opening 20 minutes until ratcheting up their attack for the rest of the first half.

Liverpool didn't have a single shot on-target in the first half for the first time since the trip to Stoke back in April, when Liverpool deployed a radically changed 3-5-1-1 line-up. Liverpool didn't have a shot from inside the box that wasn't blocked until the 65th minute, with six in-box shots blocked and six from outside the box either off-target or blocked.

But Jürgen Klopp made some good in-game changes. In the second half, Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain switched flanks, ostensibly so Salah could make Zappacosta think twice before driving forward at Liverpool's defense. Coutinho played further forward with Milner deeper, looking much more a 4-2-3-1 with Liverpool in possession. For the first 20 minutes of the second half, Liverpool had six shots to Chelsea's one.

And in the 65th minute, Liverpool got the breakthrough. And they needed an absolutely brilliant piece of attacking play to do so: Henderson intercepts a lofted clearance on the halfway line, to Coutinho, to Salah, to Coutinho, around Kante and driving at the defense. Bakayoko can't block Coutinho's layoff to Oxlade-Chamberlain, who plays a perfect throughball to Salah, controlled outstandingly and then finished past Courtois with his weaker foot.

Coutinho, higher up, with the run and layoff to make the goal. Oxlade-Chamberlain from the right with the assist. And Salah, cutting inside from the left, controlling and finishing despite having to play it with his right foot.

That was fun.

No matter how good your attack is, you don't get many moves like that against Chelsea. You don't create many moves like that against Chelsea.

Of course, there would be a reply. There would be Fabregas and Pedro and Willian on for Drinkwater, Bakayoko, and Zappacosta. There wouldn't be many Liverpool substitutes – not with that attacking bench, not with Can and Lovren injured, not with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson as the only defenders and Wijnaldum and Lallana the only midfielders.

But Liverpool were holding out reasonably well, pushed too deep and unable to keep possession, but mostly denying chances. And then, Willian somehow Koncheskys a cross over Mignolet in the 85th minute. Two minutes after coming on. And a minute after Liverpool weren't allowed to make a substitute of their own because reasons.

It's a fluke, it's a gut punch, and it happens, and it's honors even between two good teams. It's the third consecutive match where we've seen this scoreline in this fixture. Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain were outstanding, Gomez again belied his age with a very good defensive performance against difficult opposition, and Henderson and Moreno's performances – especially Moreno's – were polar opposites of the drama and disorder in Sevilla.

But then there's the context. I've written about the context way too often of late.

It's the 22nd time that Liverpool have drawn or lost despite having the lead. It's the third time in the league this season – and you don't want to look where Liverpool would be in the table with six more points from the matches against Watford, Newcastle, and Chelsea. It's the 10th time it's happened because of an opposition goal scored after the 80th minute. It's very much two vital points dropped rather than a point earned.

Liverpool have now played all five of their top six rivals. One win, smashing an abysmal Arsenal. Two frustrating draws, against United and Chelsea, both at Anfield. And two comprehensive losses, away at City and Tottenham.

And now, we're where we started. Liverpool could have gone above Tottenham into fourth after they drew against West Brom. Liverpool could have gone level on points with Chelsea in third. But the table remains the same for now, with Liverpool possibly falling a place in the standings if Arsenal or Burnley win when they play tomorrow.

The season is a third of the way over. And Liverpool cannot keep giving away points that they should be more than capable of holding onto. The rest of the league is far too good for that.

24 November 2017

Liverpool v Chelsea 11.25.17

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 01.31.17
2-1 Liverpool (a) 09.16.16
1-1 (h) 05.11.16
3-1 Liverpool (a) 10.31.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-3 Sevilla (a); 3-0 Southampton (h); 4-1 West Ham (a)
Chelsea: 4-0 Qarabag (a); 4-0 West Brom (a); 1-0 United (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 9; Coutinho, Firmino, Mané 3; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Chelsea: Morata 8; Alonso, Hazard 3; Batshuayi, Pedro 2; Azpilicueta, Bakayoko, Fabregas, Kante, Luiz 1

Referee: Michael Oliver (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren Klavan Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Coutinho
Salah Firmino Mané

Mignolet for Karius aside, I wouldn't be surprised to see the same side which did things at Sevilla. Good things and bad things. You remember the things.

Both Matip and Lallana are training, but I don't expect either to start. Matip, just given how short his absence has been, is more likely, but Stoke on Wednesday is a better bet. And, limiting Liverpool's options for changing what was a very bad midfield on Tuesday, Emre Can's questionable with a minor muscle injury.

And yes, "same again" includes keeping Alberto Moreno in the starting XI. A bad 15 minutes against your former club doesn't and shouldn't rule out everything that came before. Maybe Milner's a "safer" option but Milner's not a long-term option. Moreno's gotta play through this, because Chelsea at home is not the time for Andrew Robertson to make his first start in two months. But I will perpetually remain afraid of Liverpool defenders with a point to prove, even more than I'm already perpetually afraid of Liverpool defenders.

I guess there's a chance Liverpool will play the 4-4-2 we saw at West Ham, considering who's available and Chelsea's likely shape, but I'm not all that expectant. Regardless, it'd be the same XI, but with Firmino and Salah central and Mané and Coutinho wide. And I remain concerned about Coutinho's tracking back when deployed wide, especially in a formation that encourages the opposition to attack.

And Chelsea, even though they're managed by Antonio Conte, even though they play three at the back, even though they're still Chelsea, will attack. Maybe more heavily on the counter, but they'll present problems. They've won six of their last seven, including the last two away from home by a 4-0 scoreline. Only Roma, the lone loss since October 14, held Chelsea scoreless over the last five weeks. It's probably not coincidence that Chelsea were without N'Golo Kante in that match.

Chances are that Chelsea's XI will be familiar, although they had much more license to rotate in the midweek Champions League match. But both of the last two league matches – 1-0 v United, 4-0 at West Brom – saw the same 3-5-1-1 line-up. Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill; Zappacosta, Fabregas, Kante, Bakayoko, Alonso; Hazard; Morata.

Maybe Rüdiger or David Luiz comes in for Zappacosta, with Azpilicueta as the wing-back in a slightly more defensive set-up. 3-4-3 is also an option with Willian or Pedro coming in for one of the three central midfielders; Willian scored twice midweek at Qarabag, with one set up by Pedro. Batshuayi is out injured, while Moses has only recently returned and is likely to be on the bench at best.

There are two ways to look at Liverpool's recent record against Chelsea. It's good! Liverpool are unbeaten in their last five against last season's league winners. It's kind of frightening! Liverpool haven't won against Chelsea at Anfield since May 2012, a 4-1 win with Chelsea all but asleep after beating Liverpool in the FA Cup final a few days earlier.

Sevilla has to be forgotten. That collapse cannot affect Liverpool as past collapses have; 0-5 at City followed by a seven-match run where Liverpool won just once. The ideal would be the response to losing 1-4 at Tottenham, rattling off four complete wins before last Tuesday happened, even if none of those wins came against a side with the talent that Chelsea has.

Sevilla can't be forgotten. This was not Liverpool's first multiple-goal collapse, even if it was Liverpool's first in a while. It probably won't be the last. But it needs to be the last, at least for a while. This side has still scored at least three goals in its last five games. This side had kept clean sheets in three of the previous four matches (and five of the previous seven), with no team attempting more than six shots, in the games before Sevilla.

Last season, Liverpool went unbeaten against their top-six rivals. This season, Liverpool have one win, one draw, and two humiliating losses. They are, however, still unbeaten at Anfield. They have, however, still conceded just one league goal at Anfield.

Chelsea currently sit third, three points ahead of Liverpool in fifth. Three points are available tomorrow. Chelsea have Liverpool's points and Liverpool's place. Liverpool need to go get them.

23 November 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-3 Sevilla 

Previous Match Infographics: Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

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

I can't help but start with a table I posted after Liverpool's 2-2 draw with Sevilla.

Liverpool have now lost or drawn 21 matches where they've had the lead under Jürgen Klopp. It's happened five times when Liverpool have had a two-goal lead or – following this collapse from 3-0 – better. Jürgen Klopp has been manager for 119 games. In 17.6% of Klopp's Liverpool games, Liverpool have had a lead but failed to win.

To break it down even further. Liverpool have taken a lead in 81 of those 119 games. Liverpool have won 60 of those 81 – 46 times by holding onto an established lead, 11 times by coming back from a deficit, and three times where Liverpool had a lead, lost the lead, then retook the lead.

81 times where Liverpool had a lead. 21 times where Liverpool failed to win with said lead. 25.9% of matches where Liverpool have had a lead. Yikes.

That seems like a lot of lost opportunities. On the plus side, at least Liverpool have yet to lose after taking a lead this season, something they did twice in each of the previous seasons.

On the negative side, Liverpool have yet to come back to win from a losing position this season.

Also on the negative side, nine of those above 21 matches saw the opposition's crucial goal come after the 80th minute. Late goals conceded, nowhere near as many late goals scored, especially not meaningful goals. And another two crucial points dropped, no matter the first half that came before the second.

Sevilla's comeback wasn't entirely unexpected, even considering Liverpool's proclivity for Liverpooling. Lost in the second-half collapse is the fact that Sevilla had two clear-cut chances after Liverpool's early opener, before Liverpool's second – one saved by Karius, one narrowly wide from two-goal-scorer Ben Yedder. Even when Liverpool were 1-0 and 2-0 up, Liverpool weren't in control. The only true spell of dominance came after Liverpool's third, with Sevilla on tilt. But with Liverpool unable to push it further, most notably with Salah's clear-cut chance cleared off the goal line.

I expect you remember the previous meeting, where Liverpool came back from conceding early and were cruising, up 2-1, which should have been 3-1 when Firmino missed a penalty. And then Sevilla's equalizer happened in the second half, as Liverpool lost control.

Liverpool have been especially prone to losing control away from home this season. 

23 of the 28 goals conceded this season have come away from Anfield. Liverpool are averaging 0.56 goals conceded per game at home and 2.09 on the road. Otherwise known as nearly four times as many. Three goals conceded at Watford and Sevilla, four at Tottenham, five at Manchester City. The only away match where Liverpool haven't conceded was the 7-0 massacre at Maribor. And all nine of Liverpool's goals conceded from set plays – five free kicks (one direct), four corners, and a penalty – have come away from home. Both penalties saved by Simon Mignolet this season came away from home as well – at Hoffenheim and at Leicester.

I remain unsure whether the away curse is tactical or mental – probably a little from column A and a little from column B – but it's a massive problem all the same.

Alberto Moreno's taken a lot of the blame for Tuesday. And unsurprisingly so. His foul that led to Sevilla's free kick first. Him beaten to the header by Ben Yedder for Sevilla's free kick first. His completely unnecessary foul for Sevilla's penalty. It was a mad 20 minutes which got him hooked, and all too reminiscent of his second-half performance against the same side in the 2016 Europa League final. The same side that Moreno used to play for.

It's a bad look, especially after this week's "I'M BACK, BABY!" interviews. But I can't help but focusing on Jordan Henderson.

Remember when we used to complain about midfielders passing sideways? What I wouldn't have given for that.

Liverpool's captain, who played the full 90 minutes, touched the ball all of 37 times at Sevilla. Only Moreno and the three substitutes had fewer Liverpool touches. 30 were passes – 17 successful, 13 errant. He made three interceptions (all before Sevilla's first goal), blocked one cross, was caught offsides twice, and mis-controlled into a giveaway once. No tackles attempted. No aerial duels attempted.

From the holding midfielder. From the player with more Liverpool appearances than anyone else in the squad. From the Liverpool captain. That's not good.

Look, "the captain" is often an ephemeral label. Klopp often doesn't seem to put much stock in it. Each player needs to be responsible for themselves and the team, etc. But put in this situation – especially the last few minutes of the match, where you'd kept Sevilla out for almost 30 minutes after completely losing the plot – you'd expect senior players to be able to calm the play. To put a foot on the ball and reassert at least a modicum of control. That's what Gerrard, Hyypia, etc does.


But let's be clear. Outside of the front three, no one really played well. The right-side of the defense was okay. The substitutes were okay. The left side of the defense – including both Mané and Coutinho, at least in their defensive responsibilities – was bad. The midfield was very bad.

Even when playing a counter-attacking game, you need to be able to assert some semblance of control. 
I started doing these match infographics in 2012-13, so I feel pretty safe in stating the following. No team has attempted or completed more passes against Liverpool under Rodgers or Klopp. No team has had a greater disparity in passes attempted or completed against Liverpool under Rodgers or Klopp. Liverpool have never had a lower passing accuracy under Rodgers or Klopp. Liverpool have never attempted or completed fewer passes under Rodgers or Klopp. No team has had more possession against Liverpool under Rodgers or Klopp.

This Liverpool side often dominates possession, for better or worse. This Liverpool side can be better with less possession, allowed more space for the counter-attack, more space for that front three to do front three things. But this was especially lopsided and especially horrific. The pass accuracy is the most galling, unable to keep the ball when Liverpool needed to take the sting out of the opposition, crowd, and game.

But this is not the end of the world. Liverpool remain a point ahead of Sevilla and three points ahead of Spartak. Liverpool have yet to lose in the Champions League this season. A win against Spartak – who could only draw at home with Maribor on Tuesday – still sees Liverpool win the group. A draw sees Liverpool qualify for the knockout rounds, the place in the group dependent on Sevilla's result at Maribor. Not that you want to rely on Liverpool in an end-all, be-all match, seeing how this side's responded to pressure in big games, but it's still better than a lot of scenarios.

Of course we'd have all taken a draw before kickoff. But that doesn't excuse what happened on Tuesday. And after all the group that'd come before...

One step forward, two steps back. Again. Four impressive wins, against less impressive sides, but then another collapse. Starting with an individual, but eventually team-wide. Not great, Liverpool.

Now, Chelsea on Saturday. Yet again, another response needed. And quickly.