31 March 2017

Liverpool v Everton 04.01.17

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.19.16
4-0 Liverpool (h) 04.20.16
1-1 (a) 10.04.15
0-0 (a) 02.07.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 City (a); 2-1 Burnley (a); 3-1 Arsenal (h)
Everton: 4-0 Hull (h); 3-0 West Brom (h); 2-3 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 12; Firmino 9; Lallana, Milner 7; Coutinho 6; Wijnaldum 5; Can, Origi 4; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Everton: Lukaku 21; Barkley, Coleman, Mirallas 4; Valencia 3; Baines, Barry 2; Bolasie, Calvert-Lewin, Davies, Gueye, Lookman, McCarthy, Schneiderlin, Williams 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Klavan Milner
Wijnaldum Can Coutinho
Mané Firmino Origi

In case you hadn't noticed, the Merseyside Derby is taking place on April Fool's Day. This seems extremely fitting.

Less amusing is the after-effects of the international break. Lallana's out for the next month or so with a thigh injury, joining Henderson – who suffered a setback in his recovery – and Sturridge – who's only just started his own solo recovery training – on the sidelines. Both Firmino and Coutinho are almost certain to start, but it's safe to assume neither will be 100% after only returning to Liverpool on Wednesday night.

Lallana's absence leaves Liverpool something of a conundrum in midfield. There seems two options: either Coutinho drops deeper, with Origi the most likely to come in on the left, or Lucas plays as the deepest midfielder with Can moving forward. Neither option's ideal. Neither's played in that position very often, at least as a starter. Either choice would leave Liverpool's already threadbare bench even more so, with Liverpool less capable elf making mid-game changes if need be.

I will remind that Liverpool's front three was Mané, Firmino, and Origi when these sides last met, thanks to Coutinho's absence. And Liverpool only managed eight shots before the 90th minute despite 67% possession, needing Sturridge to come off the bench for added impetus and ultimately the shot which led to Mané's hysterical winner.

Maybe Lovren also returns in place of Klavan – he's has a lot of time on the training pitch to recover and did play quite well in the last meeting – but Liverpool's defense is often a case of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it." Until it inevitably breaks again.

Everton didn't make it through the internationals unscathed either, with a horrific injury to Seamus Coleman. James McCarthy also aggravated a hamstring problem while with Ireland and Schneiderlin hasn't recovered since going off against Hull, joining long-term casualties Bolasie, Funes Mori, and Besic.

Injuries aside, it's still seemingly not the best time to play Everton. The wrong half of the city has lost just once in their last nine matches. But that statistic's a little deceiving; Everton haven't been great away from home, with that lone loss at Tottenham, draws at Boro and Stoke, and a narrow 1-0 win at Crystal Palace their away results in 2017. It's at home where they've done damage, winning six straight league matches since losing to *checks results* oh, right, Liverpool.

Tomorrow's XI should be Robles; Holgate, Williams, Jagielka, Baines; Davies, Barry, Gueye; Barkley, Lukaku, Mirallas. Maybe it'll be Calvert-Lewin or Valencia in attack rather than Mirallas; maybe it'll be a 4-2-3-1 formation rather than 4-3-3. Everton have a reasonable amount of options and Everton's bench will probably look stronger than Liverpool's.

But we all know where the danger lies. Romelu Lukaku. Top scorer in the league with 21 goals this season, which is 41% of Everton's total tally; only Jermain Defoe's scored a higher percentage of his side's goals. Nine in his last six games, including at least one in each of the last four and four in a 6-3 win over Bournemouth. Five goals in 12 appearances against Liverpool, although with just one at Anfield, late as a substitute for West Brom four years ago. Liverpool have done excellently against him in both matches since Klopp became manager, restricted to one off-target shot over 180 minutes, first by Sakho and Lovren last season, then by Matip and Lovren this season. But past is rarely precedent.

Chances are tomorrow's meeting will look like the last. Everton trying to start fast, trying to press Liverpool into early mistakes and ideally an early concession before dropping deeper and deeper to restrict space and limit chances. It nearly worked last time, if not for Sturridge's fortunate rebound of the post and Mané first to react.

And it will look like a Merseyside Derby, the derby with the most fouls, the derby with the most red cards. A derby that's gone quite well at Anfield in recent years. This is not the time to foul up that record. Injuries and squad depth be damned. The fact that it's a derby be damned. There are just nine games left and Liverpool sit upon a precipice, a pack of five teams for three Champions League spots. Every game is a knock-down drag-out derby. This one just comes first.

27 March 2017

2016-17 Liverpool Spreadsheets

As promised/threatened last week, I'm going to put up my four Liverpool season-long spreadsheets. Normally, I'd wait until the end of the season to get these up but I've been asked and there's been a dearth of content because of the international break and I'm a bad blogger so you're getting them earlier.

Liverpool Goals Workbook

Opposition Goals Workbook

Liverpool Premier League Shots

Opposition Premier League Shots

I will try to keep these updated through the last nine games.

21 March 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Leicester (a), Tottenham (h), Hull (a), Chelsea (h), Swansea (h), Manchester United (a), Sunderland (a), Manchester City (a), Stoke (h), Everton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

I sincerely apologize, but real life has taken over in the last few days and I haven't had the time I'm usually able to devote to these. So, while you're getting the graphic, I don't have the usual 800 or so words following. Seems better to just get this up than take another day to get words out. Sunday's match review will have to suffice as far as written nonsense from me goes, but I will point to a couple of odds and ends.

• This is, as usual, an outstanding match review from The Anfield Wrap's Neil Atkinson.

• It's the first time since I started tracking Liverpool's shot location in 2013-14 where Liverpool went an entire league match without a shot from outside the box. That's one match out of 143, and I'd bet that streak goes back even longer.

• While Liverpool will finish the campaign unbeaten against the top six sides – with five wins and five draws – this was the third out of five draws where Liverpool had a 1-0 lead but the match finished 1-1. As happened at Tottenham and Manchester United. Those could have been some very valuable points.

Also, I will try to make it up to you by getting my spreadsheets for shots and goals from Liverpool and their opponents for the current season fully updated and online before the weekend.

19 March 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City

Milner 51' [pen]
Agüero 69'

I don't understand how two good teams can play so well and so bad at the same time but this is Liverpool and this is Manchester City.

It seems an insufficient summary, but that game was dumb. Enthralling, wide open, seemingly in 2x fast forward and fun, but still dumb. Which is in keeping with both sides' modus operandi.

Both sides went for the throat: City through Sané and Sterling's speed down the flanks, Liverpool through its constant pressing and counter-attacking, with the three-man midfield especially impressive.

Both sides missed multiple chances, especially as the game went on. Every player ran as hard and as fast as they could until they couldn't anymore; I think poor Yaya Toure died during halftime. Players were falling all over a slick pitch, and I really did not like this rendition of Ragnar Klavan On Ice. Michael Oliver ignored four penalty claims in the first half – two for each side; two concrete, one probably, one maybe – as well as a clear-as-day Yaya Toure red card for cleating a prone Emre Can in the chest. Toure rugby-tackling Wijnaldum after a delightful dance in the box and Milner sliding into the back of Sterling's leg less than three yards from goal were absolutely hilarious no calls.

So I suppose it's fitting that Liverpool opened the scoring with a penalty not long after halftime when Clichy, trying to recover after (surprise!) slipping, barged into the back of Firmino and almost kinda sorta got the ball too, a penalty claim better than half and worse than half than we saw in the first 45 minutes. Milner, in his 450th league appearance, scored his 50th league goal, sending Caballero the wrong way. He has still not lost when scoring.

City tilted a bit after conceding, spared a second by Caballero wonderfully denying Firmino and a couple of John Stones tackles, but unsurprisingly came back, the equalizer from Agüero after yet another City attack down Liverpool's left. De Bruyne found space out wide and delivered a perfect low cross, and this time, Agüero finally got behind Klavan just enough to tap in.

And from there, the cavalcade of missed chances. Agüero tearing away from two defenders, receiving the return from Sané only to slip eight yards from goal, with the follow-up pegged off the post by de Bruyne. A wide-open, six-yards-out Lallana unable to tap in a bouncing ball, wonderfully set up by Wijnaldum and Firmino. Mignolet charging out to just barely do enough to stop Sterling from getting through, somehow not conceding a penalty in the process. Firmino blasting into the side-netting on yet another fast break. Agüero heading wide at the near post, then shanking a close range volley.

Between them, City and Liverpool failed to score six clear-cut chances, and that's not counting the aforementioned Agüero slip or Lallana whiff because neither actually got a shot off. Between them, City and Liverpool took 26 shots and only the last, a speculative half-volley from Agüero in the 94th minute, came from outside the box.

So, I guess 1-1 is fitting, but 3-3 or 4-4 would have been even more so.

In isolation, a point is a perfectly cromulent result at the Etihad, especially considering the pattern of play. Again, Liverpool's midfield was really, really good – Emre Can doing things! Gini Wijnaldum away from home! – and everyone else bar maybe Coutinho (sigh, again) was pretty damn alright as well. Liverpool chances aside, Stones and Otamendi did really well, and prevented even more and better opportunities. Agüero, Sterling, Sané, Silva, and de Bruyne are a damn handful, especially in this form, and Liverpool limited them to just one really well-created and taken goal. Pretend I didn't mention multiple clear-cut chances just two paragraphs ago.

And Liverpool now will finish their league campaign unbeaten against the top six, the first time Liverpool have gone unbeaten against City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, and United since 1995-96. When, incidentally, they finished third, another one of those "what could have been" seasons.

But with context, it's a bit disappointing. Because Liverpool had a lead. Because Liverpool had lots of good chances to score. Because a different referee might have given Liverpool more (or, to be fair, given Manchester City more). Because Liverpool only sit fourth by four points over United and six points over Arsenal, and both of those sides have two games in hand. Manchester City, still ahead of Liverpool by a point, has an extra game to play. As does Tottenham, three points ahead of Liverpool.

And Liverpool are out of top six sides to play. Everton's next, but then we've got the Stokes, West Broms, Bournemouths, Southamptons, and West Hams of the world. And we know how those have gone.

But we'll worry about that after the international break. Everyone take a deep breath.

18 March 2017

Liverpool at Manchester City 03.19.17

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.31.16
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.02.06
1-1 City aet (n; League Cup) 02.28.06
4-1 Liverpool (a) 11.21.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Burnley (a); 3-1 Arsenal (h); 1-3 Leicester (a)
City: 1-3 Monaco (a); 2-0 Boro (a); 0-0 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 12; Firmino 9; Lallana 7; Coutinho, Milner 6; Wijnaldum 5; Can, Origi 4; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
City: Agüero 12; Sterling 6; de Bruyne, Iheanacho, Nolito, Toure 4; Gündogan, Jesus, Sane 3; Silva 2; Clichy, Fernandinho, Kolarov, Zabaleta 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Klavan Milner
Lallana Can Wijnaldum
Mané Firmino Coutinho

So, these are the games that Liverpool get up for?

I can't help but remain perpetually concerned.

At least the injury and squad depth crisis is getting slightly better. Henderson and Sturridge remain absent – the former especially worrisome given his performance when these sides last met – but there's a reasonable chance Firmino is back, often so necessary in matches like these. Especially since Origi took a minor knock in training. Maybe Lovren will return too, having played for the under-23s earlier this week, but Klavan's done reasonably well in his absence.

And City haven't been great at home, relatively speaking, losing just once but drawing five with seven wins, compared to ten wins and four losses away. They've only played twice at home in the league since the start of February, held 0-0 by Stoke and a narrow 2-1 win over Swansea, but they also scored five against both Huddersfield and Monaco in cup competition.

And therein lies the Manchester City narrative. They're confusing. Sitting in third, a point ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand, they've underperformed this season. Tomorrow's probable XI is Caballero; Zabaleta, Stones, Otamendi, Kolarov; Fernandinho; Sterling, de Bruyne, Silva, Sane; Agüero. But Clichy, Sagna, Toure, Navas, Nolito, and Iheanacho are also options – in defense, in midfield, and in attack – with only Gündogan and Gabriel Jesus, both out injured.

Just look at that squad, especially that attack. That front five has more firepower than the second Death Star. And probably cost more. On their day, they're absolutely brilliant going forward: 3-1 over Barcelona or 4-0 at West Brom or 5-0 and 4-0 in two trips to West Ham within a month. Sterling and Sane's pace against Liverpool's full-backs is especially frightening, as is Agüero's freakish scoring ability. But there's also Everton 4-0 win over City or Leicester's 4-2 win over City or the aforementioned 0-0 against Stoke.

I'm both curious to see and terrified of City's reaction to going out of the Champions League. Those two legs against Monaco, losing on away goals, were perfectly Manchester City this season. A party up front and a party at the back. They went behind 1-2 at home in the first leg only to score four in the second half, but still allowed one more. Then again conceded two first-half goals early in the away leg at Monaco, got an away goal of their own to retake the aggregate advantage, and then awfully conceded late to go out.

To be fair, Monaco's attack is unconscionable, somehow top-scorers in the big five European leagues. But Monaco's goals demonstrate the multiple ways to attack Manchester City: a goalkeeper error playing out from the back, speed from Mbappe behind the backline, and a direct counter-attack in the first leg; a broken half-cleared set play, possession then low cross, and another set play in the second leg. They're error-prone, especially when pressed. They can be pressed and swarmed in their own half and can be undone with pace, which are very much ways that Liverpool like to attack. And then set plays. If this sounds familiar, it's because these are all ways that Liverpool concede too. Incidentally, Liverpool also haven't scored from a set play in the league since two against Sunderland on January 2.

But Liverpool's win against City on New Year's Eve was achieved differently, for both Liverpool and City, aside from City conceding yet another early goal. It was Liverpool's low in shots, passes, and possession this season. It was one of just two 1-0 Liverpool league wins this season. But Liverpool also held City to just nine shots, just two on-target, both from outside the box. Just two shots in total from inside the box, both off-target. Liverpool held City without a shot for the final 31 minutes in a match where City were desperately chasing an equalizer.

Liverpool won because of Wijnaldum's early goal, but Liverpool won because Liverpool defended. Arguably the best they've done since Klopp became manager.

And Liverpool do have an excellent record against City lately, regardless of each side's manager. They're kind of, pretty much, almost unbeaten in the last five meetings, with four Liverpool wins and an cup final defeat solely on spot kicks. City have won just three of the last 12 league meetings, albeit all on their own ground.

Tomorrow marks Liverpool's last match against one of its fellow Top 6 rivals. Liverpool's last chance to finish unbeaten against its peers. Liverpool haven't gone unbeaten against City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, and United since 1995-96, a season where Tottenham finished 8th, Chelsea 11th, and City 18th. And Liverpool finished third.

Liverpool are where they are, still clinging onto and chasing a top-four place, because of how they've done against their peers. But that won't make tomorrow any easier.

13 March 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Burnley

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (h), Leicester (a), Tottenham (h), Hull (a), Chelsea (h), Swansea (h), Manchester United (a), Sunderland (a), Manchester City (a), Stoke (h), Everton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

As long as Liverpool win, it's hard to complain. Sure, it wasn't good. But it was better than Swansea, Hull, and Leicester since the start of 2017, with a vastly better result. And, nearly midway through March, fighting desperately for a top four spot with ten league matches remaining, that's all that matters.

But it's certainly not as if Liverpool's solved their issues against the league's lesser lights.

Burnley held Liverpool to ten shots yesterday. Only Manchester City (5), Chelsea (7), and Manchester United (9) – all at Anfield – have held Liverpool to fewer.

Liverpool had just one big chance – scored by Wijnaldum – but coming because of a fortunate rebound which not only presented the opportunity but took Mee out of the picture. Which, admittedly, is better than zero big chances against either Hull or Leicester, but far fewer than the four against Tottenham or three against Chelsea and Arsenal.

Yesterday saw Liverpool's lowest tackles total and joint-third lowest interceptions total this season, with fewer Liverpool interceptions in only 2-3 Swansea (h) and 5-1 Hull (h), matches where Liverpool had a lot more possession.

I posted this table after the Tottenham match, and it's only gotten worse with the fixtures against Leicester, Arsenal, and now Burnley.

That Bottom 10 opposition shot accuracy. That Bottom 10 Big Chances per game. Oof. And remember, the Bottom 10 averages remain inflated because of much earlier big victories over Leicester, Hull, Watford, and Palace.

Paul Tomkins hits on the biggest problem. Liverpool often aren't physical enough to deal with the bottom half sides, many of whom rely on physicality. On long balls, crosses, and set plays.

This chart seems the most crucial. Liverpool are not only the shortest side, they're nearly the lightest, behind only Manchester City. Another side who's had problems against the sides that Liverpool have problems against.

One more note, this time from Andrew Beasley, although I thoroughly encourage you to go read the whole thing.

Teams know they can "get at" Liverpool. We've seen it in each of the previous three matches we're still moaning about – Swansea, Hull, and Leicester – as well as the first meeting against Burnley.

Here are yesterday's aerial duels, via WhoScored.

This actually isn't bad; there aren't a vast amount in Liverpool's final third, even though Burnley's possession total is slightly higher than the opposition's had in similar matches. There's a lot more than usual in Burnley's half, showing Liverpool's proclivity for long passes in an attempt to get around Burnley, especially in the first half.

Liverpool average 69 long passes per game. They attempted 83 yesterday. And Burnley's center-backs won 21 aerial duels.

Who won the most for Liverpool? Emre Can, with seven. Even when he's not good – see: the entire first half – his physicality is often necessary, because Liverpool's so otherwise lacking in it.

Which makes it fitting that he also scored Liverpool's winner. Liverpool's first outside-the-box goal since December 4th, also from Can. Liverpool took 124 shots from outside the box between those two strikes, 72 in the league and 52 in the FA and League Cups, over 18 matches.

Liverpool's longest stretch without an out-box goal last season was seven matches. Finishing variance is fun. At least Emre picked a hell of a time to break that streak.

And at least it's a start. It's better than we've seen in these matches for a few months, with a vastly better and much-needed result. One which hopefully helps to cure Liverpool's seemingly mental fragility in these fixtures.

It's only the second time Liverpool "won ugly" against a bottom side this season, joining the 2-1 victory at Swansea back in October. It's the third time Liverpool won despite conceding an opening goal within 20 minutes, along with that 2-1 win at Swansea and a 4-1 win over Stoke.

Liverpool needed to prove to itself, as well as the rest of the league, that they can actually do this and win these.

Liverpool's remaining games:

Five against the Top 10, five against the Bottom 10. But more specifically, it's two against the Top 7 – the next two games – six against the middle tier, and two against bad teams, both at Anfield. And there are some very worrisome games in that middle tier: sides that beat or held Liverpool this season (Bournemouth, West Ham, and Southampton), and sides whose style can trouble Liverpool (Stoke and West Brom), both away from home.

There are a lot of potential problems in these final ten matches. Liverpool finally took the necessary first step, but there's quite a long way to go.

12 March 2017

Liverpool 2-1 Burnley

Barnes 7'
Wijnaldum 45+1'
Can 61'

I'm still not entirely sure how Liverpool won that. That was not good. That looked like it would be a repeat of the last meeting, much to our infinite displeasure.

I'm entirely sure that I do not care how Liverpool won because Liverpool won.

Once again, Burnley seemed to know exactly how to exploit Liverpool's weaknesses, and did so almost immediately. Burnley came at Liverpool, no matter the venue, opposition, or Burnley's away record. Every single attack from the opening whistle was a long pass to Andre Gray in behind, in between Milner and Klavan, looking to take advantage of the striker's pace and Milner's desire to get forward.

So Liverpool's back line starts to drop. So then a deep cross from Lowton without a Liverpool player in spitting distance finds Barnes in between Matip and Clyne. Once again, it's far too easy for Burnley to find space against Liverpool's defense. Once again, Burnley's 4-4-2 formation and Burnley's tactics get over against Liverpool far too easily. Once again, Burnley are ahead thanks to an early goal.

All within seven minutes.

So now Liverpool are behind. Liverpool have to find a way to equalize against a team that's rarely looked like conceding against Liverpool. A physical side who prevented Coutinho and Lallana from creating absolutely anything and dominated aerially. It seemed the rest of the half was Liverpool cross blocked, corner. Corner cleared. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Unlike in the last meeting, Liverpool couldn't even create chances. It wasn't a deep, packed final third; Burnley contested and congested Liverpool's playmakers, denying space higher up the pitch, forcing Liverpool to go wide. There were just three Liverpool shots in the first 45 minutes: Matip from a corner blocked, Can from distance blocked, and Wijnaldum from distance off-target.

But then first-half injury time. Then Wijnaldum. One of those crosses, from Origi pulling wide, and a bit of luck: Wijnaldum's first awkward effort blocked but falling right to his feet with Mee now out of position, reacting quickly to prod a shot past Heaton, with what was basically the last kick of the half. That's now four goals and two assists in Wijnaldum's last six league games at Anfield. Home cooking tastes good.

Liverpool very much needed that goal. Especially since Burnley started the second half as they started the first, on top and threatening, albeit at least not to the extent as earlier. Still, chances for Barnes, Arfield, and Mee, from open play and set plays, three off-target, one blocked. Next to nothing from Liverpool, limited to Lallana wild from distance and a bunch of corners which were easily cleared.

Something had to change. And with a bench comprised of Karius, Moreno, Gomez, Lucas, Alexander-Arnold, Wilson, and Woodburn, there wasn't much that seemed possible. Liverpool's best available players were already on the pitch.

No matter. Coutinho, usually one of Liverpool's most important but demonstrably poor, got the hook on the hour mark. Woodburn, all of 17-years-old and with six Premier League minutes under his belt, came on in his stead.

And Liverpool scored within 60 seconds.

Sure, Ben Woodburn didn't have much to do with it, but it's the thought that count; the willingness to haul off an established star for a kid because the established star hadn't done enough.

A little hold-up play following Liverpool's throw-in, Origi cutting inside to lay off to Can, and Emre Can from nearly 30 yards out, arrowing a low shot into the far corner. Liverpool's first goal from outside the box since Can against Bournemouth in early December. The first time Liverpool's taken a lead in a match where they conceded the opener in 2017.

You'd hope that Liverpool would find a way to close out the match after finally going in front, to patiently control proceedings and deny Burnley opportunities. Nope. Burnley had chances almost immediately after Liverpool scored and with almost the last kick of the game, as Liverpool sat deeper and deeper and invited Burnley forward.

That's partly a function of Liverpool's personnel, tactics, and weaknesses. It's partly a function of what Burnley are capable of, their physicality and ability on set plays and crosses. But the last 30 minutes terrified, from Barnes in the 63rd, a scrambled set play shot blocked at the last moment by Klavan, to Lowton in the 93rd, a volley following a not-fully-cleared long throw scooped over under pressure from Klavan. It was at least slightly less terrifying after Lucas replaced Origi with 10 minutes to go, more secure with the Brazilian as a holding midfielder, but with Liverpool, it's always terrifying, at least in matches like these.

You just have to find a way. Even when you concede at home within seven minutes. Even when you're held to fewer shots than against any side other than Chelsea, City, or United. Even when it's incredibly hard to pick a man of the match because there's no standout; maybe Wijnaldum or Can for their goals or Klavan for his late defending, but each had demonstrable issues today as well.

Liverpool haven't able to this for the last two months, so even after that performance, it's incredibly reassuring when they finally do.

11 March 2017

Liverpool v Burnley 03.12.17

12pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Burnley (a) 08.20.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.04.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.26.14
4-0 Liverpool (a) 04.25.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Arsenal (h); 1-3 Leicester (a); 2-0 Tottenham (h)
Burnley: 2-3 Swansea (a); 1-1 Hull (a); 0-1 Lincoln (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 12; Firmino 9; Lallana 7; Coutinho, Milner 6; Origi, Wijnaldum 4; Can 3; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Burnley: Gray 8; Vokes 5; Hendrick, Keane 2; Barnes 4; Arfield, Barton, Boyd, Brady, Gudmundsson, Marney, Mee, Ward 1

Referee: Craig Pawson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Can Wijnaldum
Mané Origi Coutinho

I still have night-sweat terror flashbacks to Liverpool's last match against Burnley. I imagine most of us do.

So it's less than encouraging that Liverpool are going into this game with more injury concerns. Firmino's doubtful after picking up a problem against Arsenal, almost certainly joining Henderson and Sturridge on the sidelines. Henderson and Sturridge are also the last two Liverpool players to score against Burnley, the two finding the net in Liverpool's 2-0 Anfield win in March 2015.

At least Dejan Lovren's back?

Divock Origi up front is obviously a different proposition to Firmino. Firmino's pressing isn't as crucial in matches like these, but his interplay with Mané and Coutinho certainly is, as well as his creativity and ability in tight spaces. Origi will have a hell of a task on his hands. Ideally, as he's such a different option, he'll pose Burnley a much different threat than Firmino, unbalancing a usually resilient defense.

Firmino's struggled in Liverpool's losses, his only goals the two that nearly saw a comeback against Swansea, but unimpressive the last times these sides met and actually poor against Bournemouth, Hull, and Leicester. Meanwhile, Origi's league goals have come against the likes of Sunderland, Bournemouth, West Ham, and Boro.

Only Boro was a comprehensive team performance, but all four came in matches where Liverpool needed a flat-track bully. All four were necessarily goals, two wins, a draw, and an unnecessary loss where others contrived to stupidly stupidly stupidly throw away points at Bournemouth. Hopefully, that flat-track trend continues tomorrow. Because Burnley. Sigh. Burnley. Still that trauma from when these sides first faced in the second match of the season, at Turf Moor, with Liverpool riding high after a 4-3 opening day win at Arsenal.

It was a harbinger of ill to come. Two bad moments in defense: a giveaway error leading to a goal, then a cut-through-the-middle counter, both in the first half. Liverpool's attack throwing itself against a deep brick wall time and time and time and time again, and frustratedly failing. It was Sunderland and Swansea and Hull and Leicester before those matches happened.

Now, Burnley surprisingly sit 12th, despite being winless in their last five, three losses and two draws, including an FA Cup exit to Lincoln City. They're only five points off ninth but only four and goal different off 16th.

Because Burnley are more schizophrenic than ever Liverpool.

Burnley have the joint-fourth best record in the league at home: nine wins, two draws, and just three losses. Only Tottenham, Chelsea, and Liverpool have won more points at home.

Burnley have the worst record in the league away from home: no wins, two draws, and 11 losses.

It says a lot about this Liverpool season that seems more a challenge than an opportunity. As does the fact that Burnley haven't scored at Anfield since 1975.

But also don't read too much into Burnley's record. Whether home or away, Burnley still Burnley. It's 4-4-2. It's a deep, well-organized defense despite averaging more than two-goals-conceded per game on their travels. Most of the big away losses have come against their peers: 0-3 Leicester, 0-4 West Brom, 1-3 Southampton. Matches at Arsenal, City, and Tottenham were all fairly close 2-1 defeats, while they held Manchester United 0-0 at Old Trafford.

Burnley will still Burnley.

Burnley's XI will be missing at least two players who started in the win over Liverpool last August: the central midfield of Marney and Defour, both out injured. As is Gudmundsson, who replaced Defour in that fixture. Tomorrow's midfield will feature two from three players signed since these sides last met: Jeff Hendrick, Joey Barton, or Ashley Westwood.

Barton's available after a recent hamstring injury, as is Tom Heaton after illness kept him out of the last match. Jon Flanagan's obviously ineligible, on loan from Liverpool. The only other line-up question will be up front, whether Ashley Barnes or Sam Vokes partners Andre Gray. Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Hendrick, Barton, Brady; Gray, Barnes.

Incidentally, the back four will be the exact back four which held Liverpool scoreless last August.

So once again, Liverpool are coming off an encouraging win over Arsenal. Burnley are coming off a damaging defeat to Swansea. Liverpool are favored. Liverpool need to win.

This will be a bigger test than Arsenal was. This will be a stronger sign of what's to come over the next three months as Liverpool chase a top-four spot.

This is where Liverpool need to prove the past few months are actually, definitively in the past.

06 March 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Leicester (a), Tottenham (h), Hull (a), Chelsea (h), Swansea (h), Manchester United (a), Sunderland (a), Manchester City (a), Stoke (h), Everton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

It is incredibly simplistic, but football is a game about space. Controlling space, utilizing space. Especially Liverpool's game.

No opponent bar Tottenham had given Liverpool any space in attack in 2017. And there's a very good reason for it. When you give Liverpool space, Liverpool can punish you. Liverpool are far more likely to punish you. And when you don't, Liverpool often suffer.

See: Liverpool's first two goals on Saturday.

In theory, Arsenal were set up to stop this. Giroud up front allows for more direct play out of defense, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks are more defensive wingers, and Iwobi was central and basically playing as a third midfielder without the ball.

In practice, it didn't go so well, and it starts with defensive organization and controlling the defensive space.

All Liverpool had to do to get to this position was challenge for Mignolet's goal kick.

There's obviously still a bit to do afterwards, but it's far less likely this results in a goal if Koscielny doesn't charge out to contest the aerial with Firmino. He "wins" but it also skims off his head backwards, leading to a three-on-three, soon to be four-on-three with Firmino on the front foot and Arsenal's midfield plus Koscielny on the back. Coutinho lay-off to Lallana, Lallana wide to Mané, Mané able to center through retreating Arsenal players to Firmino, very much aided by Coutinho's dummy.

Then, 30 minutes later:

Milner gets a bit fortunate on the flank, but Arsenal break down as Iwobi doesn't track Wijnaldum, so Mustafi comes over, leaving Koscielny caught in two minds, whether to mark Firmino (also needed because Xhaka's late in getting back to help) or switch to Lallana, who's currently marked by Monreal. Which leaves Sadio Mané with more space in the penalty box than he even saw against Tottenham.

Liverpool still have to be clever enough, potent enough, and fortunate enough to take advantage, which hasn't always been the case during the winter of our discontent, even when given glimmers of openings. But it still goes back to the fact that Arsenal couldn't, didn't control their defensive space. And Liverpool used it.

Needing just nine minutes to make the breakthrough was also a massive boost.

Liverpool have now won ten and drawn just once in the 11 matches where they've scored before the 20th minute. 5-0 Burton Albion, 4-1 Leicester, 2-1 Chelsea, 5-1 Hull, 2-1 Tottenham (League Cup), 4-2 Crystal Palace, 2-2 West Ham, 1-0 Manchester City, 1-0 Plymouth Argyle, 2-0 Tottenham, and 3-1 Arsenal. In all but City and Plymouth they've gone on to score at least once more.

Granted, that's a small sample size in a low-scoring sport. The team that scores first wins fairly often no matter when it happens. Yes, even Liverpool. And "before the 20th minute" is something of an unfair dividing line, as Liverpool scored in the 20th minute at both Bournemouth and Sunderland, and went on to lose and draw respectively.

But still, an early goal seems to matter so much more to this side, in games against both good and bad opposition. There's Chelsea away and City, Tottenham, and Arsenal at home, but there's also 4-1 Leicester, 5-1 Hull, and 6-1 Watford – teams who've foiled and frustrated Liverpool in the last two months.

And the early goal meant Arsenal needed to open up and Arsenal tried to go back to doing what they do best. And Liverpool are fairly well set up to stop that.

Look at all those ball recoveries in the middle third, led by Milner (4), Clyne (3), Firmino (3), and Lallana (3).

Special mention need go to Adam Lallana, his crucial role in both the press and the finishing. Four of Lallana's five attempted tackles, as well as his lone interception, came in that span between Liverpool's two goals. He played a key part, and the second assist, in both Liverpool's first and third goals.

Liverpool are incredibly dangerous when given the opportunity to press the opposition in the middle third. Most sides have tried to limit their ability to do so, especially in the last couple of months. Arsenal seemed set up to do so as well, but Liverpool's early goal made that much more a moot point.

With this win, Liverpool are almost certainly finishing first in the Top-6 mini-league. They've taken 19 points from nine games, five wins and four draws, with City away the only top-6 match left. Chelsea (two games left) or City (four games left) would have to run the table to finish on 19 points from these ten matches. At worst, Liverpool will average 1.90 points-per-game from matches against Chelsea, Tottenham, City, Arsenal, and United, and at best, they'll finish with 2.20. Either figure's impressive, especially when considering Liverpool's record against top sides under the previous manager.

The thing is, no matter how fun it is to beat your peers, it's often less important than you'd think. In the last ten seasons, only three winners of the top-six mini-league won the actual league: Manchester City in 2011-12 and Manchester United in 2006-07 and 2010-11.

You have to beat the dross to win the league. That's why Liverpool, still unbeaten against England's best sides with only one game left against them, are only clinging onto fourth.

Burnley on Sunday.

04 March 2017

Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal

Firmino 9'
Mané 40'
Welbeck 57'
Wijnaldum 90+1'

Liverpool's ability to perform in these matches, and complete inability to do so in the others, remains astonishing and borders on comical.

Playing Tottenham or Arsenal? All right, three points in the bag, everyone's great, everything's great. Leicester or Hull? Practice your noose knots.

Liverpool are really good at playing their way. When allowed to play their way. And they're rarely allowed to do so outside of these big six matches.

Arsenal even attempted to set up to stop Liverpool from doing so. Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott dropped to the bench, with Giroud up front, Iwobi as a central attacking midfielder, and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck – Arsenal's two most defensive wingers – on the flanks. It was more a 4-3-3 than the usual 4-2-3-1 to further congest space, and Arsenal wanted to be physical, to be more direct, to cross more to more dangerous targets.

It worked for almost nine whole minutes before being undone by a goal kick.

Mignolet punted the ball long and Koscielny charged out to win the header against Firmino. And completely missed. And now Arsenal's defensive line is broken. And now Liverpool's running at a defensive line not sure what to do when three versus three. And Lallana spreads it wide to Mané, who centers through the back line, dummied by Coutinho for a wide-open Firmino, whose first touch nearly sees the opportunity gone but whose second settles in the back of the net.

It is very hard for a leopard to change its spots.

So now Arsenal have to try to overturn a deficit with this personnel. And it's not going well. Not when Liverpool can now play its game: press in midfield, press like demons, and then break at pace. Possession's nearly equal between the sides between the 10th and 40th minutes, but Arsenal have just one shot: Xhaka from long range nowhere close. Liverpool don't have many either – Coutinho blocked and well saved from the top of the box, Mané wide from outside the box – as Arsenal defended fairly well against Liverpool's threats, but Liverpool are clearly the more threatening and clearly the more comfortable.

And I say "40th minute" because that's when Liverpool got the needed second: sustained possession in Arsenal's half before Milner's slightly fortunate to keep the ball, his pass inside deflecting off Oxlade-Chamberlain back to him, but then BAM BAM BAM. Milner down the left, inside to an open Wijnaldum because Bellerin's had to help on Milner, immediately to Firmino, immediately to a wide open Mané, and a bullet past Cech. Stretch and pull Arsenal, find space, and cut across to the other side. With low, first-time passes rather than crosses. And also have Sadio Mané there at the end.

It did not take a genius to realize that Alexis Sanchez was coming on at halftime. Even a manager as stubborn as Wenger's pulling that trigger.

His impact was immediate, with Mignolet needing to palm his dangerous cross away in the 47th, then his run drawing four Liverpool defenders a minute later, leaving acres of space for Monreal to cross to Giroud, the Frenchman's header amazingly pushed onto the bar and claimed by Mignolet.

And in the 57th, Arsenal pulled one back, unsurprisingly set up by Alexis. Liverpool's midfield and defense is caught a bit too far forward, Alexis' throughball deflects a bit fortunately for Welbeck in behind, and he skews a wide shot around a charging Mignolet and under a diving Klavan.

It is a lot harder to shut up shop against Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez than Arsenal without. Liverpool couldn't really do what they did against either City or Tottenham, when suffocating their peers with a narrow lead. The way Arsenal play, at least with Sanchez involved, coupled with Liverpool's continued proclivity for going forward, led to a more open game than we'd usually seen when protecting lead in this type of match.

Liverpool had chances on the break and set plays – most notably Matip mis-heading straight at Cech and Origi hitting the post, both from free kicks – but were clearly tiring; other than Origi, there weren't options on the bench. And Arsenal frightened, but also didn't truly threaten, with just three shots after Welbeck's goal: Mustafi's errant set play header in the 79th (which would have been given offside had it been close), and blocked shots from Perez and Sanchez, denied by Klavan and Matip respectively.

Liverpool were under pressure, but Liverpool still defended well, from Matip and Klavan to Clyne and Can and Lallana. But it also could have been very different had Can picked up what seemed a deserved second yellow in the 77th minute.

Those are the breaks. And it's not as if Liverpool haven't been on the wrong end of narrow decisions this season, from offside goals (*waves in the general direction of Manchester*) to penalties not given to players not sent off. And after that last Arsenal blocked shot in the 91st minute, Liverpool wonderfully countered at pace: Lallana driving into the center circle, a full 360 degree turn away from Mustafi before finding a just-onside Origi streaking down the right with an outside-of-the-foot pass. I'm screaming "KEEP IT IN THE CORNER." Origi's centers to Wijnaldum sprinting fastest into the box, arrowing the coffin nail into the corner. I'm an idiot. That's the game.

So, yes, that was a wonderful performance from all involved, especially Mané, Firmino, and Lallana. Liverpool got a little help from Arsenal's starting XI, but Liverpool still had to take advantage. And it's a much needed result which puts Liverpool into third, at least for now, as 4th-place City, 5th-place Arsenal, and 6th-place United all have at least one game in hand.

But there, lingering in the backs of our brains despite today's euphoria, is that doubt. For how good this was, we all still know it ain't where Liverpool's problems lie.

03 March 2017

Liverpool v Arsenal 03.04.17

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

Last four head-to-head:
4-3 Liverpool (a) 08.14.16
3-3 (h) 01.13.16
0-0 (a) 08.24.15
1-4 Arsenal (a) 04.04.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Leicester (a); 2-0 Tottenham (h); 0-2 Hull (a)
Arsenal: 2-0 Sutton Utd (a); 1-5 Bayern (a); 2-0 Hull (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 11; Firmino 8; Lallana 7; Coutinho, Milner 6; Origi 4; Can, Wijnaldum 3; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Arsenal: Alexis 17; Giroud, Walcott 8; Özil 5; Iwobi 3; Cazorla, Koscielny, Oxlade-Chamberlain 2; Chambers, Mustafi, Perez, Xhaka 1

Referee: Bobby Madley

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

So, are we still reactionary BURN IT ALL DOWN after last Monday's disaster or optimistic because hey it's Liverpool against someone decent and Liverpool at home and everything just might be alright again, at least for a week.

It can be both. Because Liverpool really are both.

In theory, it's not the match to ring changes. The squad's basically going to be the same as against Leicester. Henderson and Sturridge remain out, although Lovren's back in training and will hopefully be available. If not, please Klavan and not Lucas because Alexis Sanchez is pretty fast too.

Otherwise, we ain't seeing a formation switch. We ain't seeing Moreno at left-back or Milner in midfield or Origi up front. We will get the Liverpool personnel and formation we're used to, and hope that they perform as they've performed in these matches and on their ground rather than the Liverpool we got on Monday and for most of 2017.

There are no prizes for guessing where Arsenal sit in the table. Surprise! Yes, Arsenal are fourth, one point ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand. And it's February (edit: oh hell it's actually March), so Arsenal are Arsenaling.

They're on the verge of being knocked out of the Champions League. The top six are far better than they've been in recent seasons, and Arsenal's fourth-place trophy remains under serious threat despite their current league place. Wenger's under serious pressure, the rumors that this could be his last season thicker than usual.

Like Liverpool before Leicester, they've had an extended break, with no match last weekend because of Southampton's League Cup final. Which may lead to a similar rust that Liverpool suffered, but has also given them time to get players healthy. Koscielny, Ramsey, and Giroud are back in training after missing time. Elneny and Cazorla are still out injured, while Özil's questionable after a midweek illness.

There's only a couple of potential variations to the likely XI – Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Xhaka, Coquelin; Walcott, Özil, Iwobi; Alexis. Maybe Koscielny's not fit enough to start, meaning Gabriel or Mertesacker. The toughest guess in attack, because of Arsenal's options. Oxlade-Chamberlain could start centrally if Özil's unavailable, or on the flank for a more defensive option. Welbeck's finally ready to start matches after a long-term injury. Maybe Giroud plays up top as a long ball, set play, crossing option; sure, Arsenal don't really play that way but Liverpool sure are bad against it.

Liverpool currently have the best record against the other Top 6 sides, with four wins and four draws. Arsenal have the worst, with one win (over Chelsea back in September, Chelsea's last loss before switching to 3-4-3 and that massive unbeaten run), two draws, and three losses.

This seems Liverpool's ideal opposition at the ideal time, the ideal way to bounce back from Monday's calamity. A side that wants the ball and wants to play from the back and wants to go forward. A side whose full-backs leave space in behind and whose center-backs are prone to errors.

Liverpool have scored, early and often, in these types of matches, and you only have to go back to August to see how Liverpool's front three can take advantage of Arsenal's defensive set-up. You only have to go back two-and-a-half weeks to see how Arsenal can "defend" against a potent attack, starting strong against Bayern before collapsing and conceding four in the second half.

But Arsenal are also very good going forward, and we know what Liverpool's defense is capable of. Arsenal are battling their own demons and need the win as much as Liverpool.

Liverpool cannot be complacent. Complacency's punished the side against the "weaker" teams in the division and complacency hasn't been an issue against the stronger. But Liverpool also can't expect to suddenly turn it back on either. It ain't automatic. And Monday's demons still linger.