29 May 2017

2016-17 Liverpool Season Review

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

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

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

And the league is only going to get harder.

Sure, let's start with some more stats

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

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

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

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

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

The lads, eh...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Now is the winter of our discontent...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please stop giving away points as charity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing about the defense...

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing about the attack...

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

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

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

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

So, now what?

By now, we all know what needs fixing.

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

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

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

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

23 May 2017

Liverpool Goals Scored and Conceded 2016-17

(Here are similar versions from 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16.)

The short version is Liverpool improved in all of these categories compared to last season. Total goals, number of players with 10 or more league goals, goals conceded, minutes per goal, set play goals conceded, etc.

That's a good thing! That bodes well for next season!

But the slightly longer version is that improvement was the minimum standard required, especially in regards to goals conceded, considering how Liverpool fared in both 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The second-best season in regards to goals scored – no prizes for guessing the best – in the last five seasons, and the best in regards to goals conceded.

Sure, Liverpool's goals conceded mark is nowhere near what Liverpool did under Rafa Benitez (41, 25, 27, 37, 27, 41 in his six Premier League seasons). It's still worse than Liverpool's average league goals conceded over the last 20 seasons – 1.03 per game. Liverpool's opponents scored a higher percentage of their goals in the Danger Zone than Liverpool did, and a vastly higher percentage in the six-yard box. Liverpool's opponents scored a higher percentage of their goals in the final 15 minutes of matches. All of those aren't good things. Here, more than at the other end of the pitch, is where Liverpool still most needs to improve. But improvement is improvement is improvement. It's better than last year. It's better than the four previous seasons. It is actually better, despite how we feel whenever an attacker is one-on-one with Dejan Lovren or the opposition's lining up for a corner.

And, despite more than a few horror shows, the amount of goals conceded from set plays has gotten better as well.

I know, that's not how I remember it either. But, to be meaner, there were some costly ones.

Eight of 13 conceded in draws or losses. Five of 13 conceded at 0-0. Bournemouth's two late equalizers, Benteke's winner. Three coming from defensive errors: Karius on Payet's direct free kick, Mignolet at Hull, and Wijnaldum against Bournemouth. Fewer set play goals conceded is better. Even fewer would be best.

Still, it's hard to complain about Liverpool's scoring return, aside from the doldrums over the winter months with Coutinho's injury and Mané's absence.

Liverpool's second-highest goals per game average in all competitions in the last ten seasons8, and Liverpool's second-highest goals per game average in the league since the Premier League began in 1992-93.

Sure, it was fueled by the first third of season – four goals against Arsenal and Leicester, five against Hull, six against Watford. Sure, it got really, really bad in the middle third of the season. But Liverpool did bounce back, despite lingering injury and depth issues, despite teams working out how to defend against Liverpool's preferred system. And the last two games make the final third of the season look a lot better than it felt three weeks ago.

But Liverpool did at least bounce back. At both ends of the pitch.

And because of that, Liverpool finished fourth.

22 May 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Middlesbrough

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (a), Southampton (h), Watford (a), Crystal Palace (h), West Brom (a), Stoke (a), Bournemouth (h), Everton (h), Manchester City (h), 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.

When Liverpool were backs against the wall, needing to win its last two games, Liverpool won. Convincingly, at least after 90 minutes were up. When Liverpool clearly needed to make changes – both because of injuries and because what had worked wasn't working – Liverpool made changes which clearly improved the side, clearly improved the attack, and led to Liverpool winning those games.

The incredibly short version is that the diamond midfield has made Liverpool vastly more creative in the middle of the pitch. And that's where Liverpool's goal-scorers played and that's where Liverpool's goals came from and that's why Liverpool won.

Compare the chances created in yesterday's match to Liverpool's last loss against Crystal Palace.

Sure, it'd be even more reassuring to see multiple passes in and into the box, but still. It is not easy to break through a deep, deep, deep defense. And passes into the zone just outside the box, a handful of passes into the box, and maybe a throughball or two is a hell of a lot better than crosses, chips, and long balls. Finding space through movement and quick passes versus hoping to find space with hoofs and crosses and fortune.

Even before Wijnaldum's opener, Liverpool had created some decent chances, even if resulting in far too many shots from outside the box. Firmino in the first minute, Can narrowly missing the top corner in the 21st, a couple of efforts from Sturridge pushed not far wide of the post.

Then, Wijnaldum's timely goal. First, the goalscorer finding space in that important zone, receiving the out-ball from Lovren. Clyne to Firmino just outside the box, a deft layoff, and Wijnaldum continuing to move, those necessary runs into the box from deep, finished off with aplomb.

A quick aside for Gini Wijnaldum. Six goals and 11 assists in his first season; all six goals in the league, as well as nine of 11 assists. Goals against City, Chelsea, and Arsenal, assists against Arsenal and Tottenham. The crucial equalizer in first-half stoppage time against Burnley, the crucial opener in first-half stoppage time against Boro. Three assists in these final two matches, when Liverpool needed goals because Liverpool needed to win. We'll continue to complain about going missing in games, about struggles away from home and against parked buses and when there's no space in the opposition half, but good lord he's shown up when most necessary, in the biggest of games.

And after that opener, and as against West Ham, the opening goal created the space for more soon after the restart, both with sustained build-up and on the counter-attack. Coutinho's two goals and Origi's scrambled fourth at West Ham, Lallana's game-sealing third after Boro's corner, just like Liverpool's third at West Ham. And more goals is something which did not happen against either West Brom, Watford, or Crystal Palace despite scoring the first goal around the same time.

Liverpool have taken 25 or more shots just six times this season. Four matches in the first third of the season – all prior to Coutinho's injury – and these last two matches.

More shots, but also better shots, especially after getting the first goal. Better locations, higher percentages. And goals. Goals win games, now and forever. But not conceding goals certainly helps.

The last time Liverpool went four consecutive games without conceding was January-February 2011: 3-0 Wolves, 1-0 Fulham, 2-0 Stoke, 1-0 Chelsea. They were Dalglish's 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th games as Liverpool's caretaker manager after Roy Hodgson was fired. The last two were Luis Suarez's first two games for Liverpool. That's how long it's been. 2014-15 saw a four-match league run without conceding – 1-0 Sunderland, 2-0 Villa, 2-0 West Ham, 0-0 Everton – but with goals allowed in cup ties against Chelsea (twice) and Bolton in between.

Liverpool's big wins in these necessary final two games hasn't just been improvement in attack or just improvement in defense.

There has finally been a bit of balance. Liverpool aren't scoring at the same rate as the first half of the season – at least, not until these last two games – but Liverpool are conceding fewer. And that's despite allowing slightly more shots than earlier in the season.

Liverpool have been good at shot prevention all season long; only Manchester City have allowed fewer. As we're all aware, too many of those shots have been good shots, and too many have resulted in goals. Because of set plays, because of defensive lapses. And it was still somewhat of an issue yesterday: Bamford nearly winning a penalty, Adam Forshaw's two second-half clear-cut chances (albeit both after Liverpool had taken a 3-0 lead). Progression to the mean. Everything evens out over the course of the season, even if it takes until the final few games to do so.

A fair bit of credit goes to Simon Mignolet, who has saved six clear-cut chances in the final 10 matches of the season: one at City in a 1-1 draw, one against Everton in that 3-1 win, two at Stoke, one at West Brom, and one against Boro, denying Forshaw's first good chance just after Liverpool scored its third. Mignolet saved five clear-cut chances in his previous 18 league matches. City, Stoke, and West Brom were especially important, saves which made sure Liverpool left with one, three, and three points respectively. Had Liverpool dropped points there, Liverpool could be looking up at four rather than three teams.

So, for the first time in too long, we're ending the season on a high note. Not only winning the final match – something which hasn't happened since 2013-14, after Liverpool had already thrown away its chance at the title in the two previous games – but winning a final meaningful match. Winning to cement a chance to play in next season's Champions League proper. Winning while playing well at both ends of the pitch.

Winning to make this a successful campaign, Liverpool reaching its goal of finishing in the top four for only the second time the last eight seasons. And winning to give us more than enough optimism to sustain the next three months without football.

21 May 2017

Liverpool 3-0 Middlesbrough

Wijnaldum 45+1'
Coutinho 51'
Lallana 56'

Liverpool did it.

When Liverpool needed to win two games to seal fourth place, Liverpool won 4-0 and 3-0, scoring as many goals in those two as they had in the previous six. Liverpool finished the season with four consecutive clean sheets. Liverpool finished the season with 76 points, Liverpool finished in fourth.

Liverpool didn't make it easy. Because Liverpool.

For 45 minutes, we were at wit's end. Manchester City were two goals up. Arsenal were two goals up. Liverpool were running into a brick wall, as it's felt we've seen again and again and again. Liverpool had 74% possession. Liverpool had taken 13 shots, but eight from outside the area, and none truly threatening. And Liverpool were lucky not to be behind after one of those all-too-frequent defensive breakdowns (*waves at Dejan Lovren*) with Bamford played in behind and Bamford tumbling in the penalty box but Martin Atkinson waving away appeals.

But then, as at West Ham, a moment of magic, a wondrous blitz, almost incongruous with what we'd seen previously. Matip out-muscles Gestede, Liverpool regroup. As has happened multiple times before. But this time, Wijnaldum to Clyne to Firmino to Wijnaldum, quickly worked down the inside-right, the goal coming from Firmino's deft lay-off, Wijnaldum's surging run and immaculate touch, and an utterly fierce near-post finish.

With just 30 seconds left before what would have been an infuriating interval.

Incidentally, that was Liverpool's third first-half stoppage time goal in the last six matches. Firmino at West Brom, Can at Watford, and Wijnaldum against Middlesbrough. All three absolutely necessary in breaking down a resilient defense. All three eventual match-winners.

And then, as at West Ham, Liverpool opened the floodgates and sealed the game in the 15 minutes after halftime. There was no panic, not as at 0-0. There was certainly. There was impetus. And there were goals.

First, Coutinho's direct free kick. As went Arsenal on opening day, so goes Middlesbrough on the final day. It was his third of the season, tying marks set by Suarez in 2013-14 and Gerrard in 2014-15. He'd scored just one in his Liverpool career prior to this season.

Then, counter-attacking excellence. Middlesbrough's corner ends with the ball in Middlesbrough's net. The corner swarmed and cleared by any means necessary, then Lallana tearing down the pitch with possession, Liverpool's five versus Middlesbrough's three. A slightly under-hit early cross, but *cliché alert* wanting it more on the second ball: Lallana wins the header, played directly to Wijnaldum, receives a header back, and tears through on goal, a smartly-taken left-footed finish into the far corner.

Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, Middlesbrough.

From there, a couple of chances to extend the lead: Guzan denying Coutinho, Firmino unable to set up Wijnaldum, and Wijnaldum volleying wide. A couple of chances for Adam Forshaw, Liverpool's back-line twice beaten worryingly easily, but chances untaken. Cameo appearances for Lucas and Moreno, a warm and hopefully not final send-off for Daniel Sturridge. But mostly comfort. Mostly relief. And mostly celebration.

Liverpool finish the season with 15 more goals scored than last season. With eight fewer conceded. With 16 more points. And four places better in the league table.

It is just the second time that Liverpool have finished in the Top 5 since 2008-09, let alone the Top 4. It is just the second time that Liverpool have taken more than 64 points since 2008-09, bettering that total by 12.

Liverpool's points total in those eight campaigns since? 63, 58, 52, 61, 84, 62, 60, 76.

Liverpool league finish in those eight campaigns since? 7th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 2nd, 6th, 8th, 4th.

Yes, yes, it's now up to Liverpool to prove this is the rule rather than the exception, as 2013-14 turned out to be. Yes, yes, Liverpool will still have to advance through a play-off to make the Champions League proper.

But we can worry about that in a couple of months. Right now, we're celebrating. Despite all the drama, all the torture, and all the weirdness over the last nine months.

And rightfully so.

20 May 2017

Liverpool v Middlesbrough 05.21.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 12.14.16
2-2 Liverpool pens (h; League Cup) 09.23.14
0-2 Boro (a) 02.28.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.23.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 West Ham (a); 0-0 Southampton (h); 1-0 Watford (a)
Boro: 1-2 Southampton (h); 0-3 Chelsea (a); 2-2 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 13; Coutinho 12; Firmino 11; Lallana, Milner, Origi 7; Can, Wijnaldum 5; Sturridge 3; Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Boro: Negredo 9; de Roon, Stuani 4; Ramirez 2; Ayala, Bamford, Chambers, Downing, Gestede, Gibson, Leadbitter 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

It's the last game of the season. And if Liverpool win it, they'll be in next season's Champions League. One match that could, without exaggeration, change the club's fortunes.

Just like the last match of last season.

No pressure, guys.

Oh, and, 0-0 Southampton, 1-2 Palace, 2-2 Bournemouth. Liverpool haven't won at home since April 1. They've won all four away games, surprisingly enough, but none at Anfield. Against sides who are currently 8th, 10th, and 13th.

At least Boro are decidedly worse than those three sides. Although it's not as if that's mattered much to this Liverpool side.

Roberto Firmino's at least in individual training, if not full team training, although that's been the case for more than a month now. And if he's available I suspect he'll replace Origi, although I'm not really bothered which of them starts; Origi did well with Sturridge last week and both can be valuable in changing tenor and tempo off the bench. The more important question is whether Liverpool sticks with the 4-4-2 diamond formation or reverts to 4-3-3.

Whether it's Firmino or Origi, I'm of an "if it ain't broke..." mind. Sure, it was only one game. But it was also the first time that Liverpool scored four goals in 2017. Scoring four goals, even if Liverpool had some fortune and some help, was good and fun. I'd recommend Liverpool do it again. This formation seems a far likelier proposition than any personnel variation of the 4-3-3 that Liverpool have deployed in recent months. But having Sturridge's movement up front, whether 4-3-3 or 4-Diamond-2, may well be more important as the formation, although I'll continue to maintain he's had his best moments at the club with a strike partner.

Meanwhile, Middlesbrough have won just one league match in 2017. One. Of 18, with seven draws and 11 losses. It was three weeks ago: 1-0, at home, against the only side lower than they are in the table. Boro have not been good this season. They are especially bad in attack, with only one player scoring more than four goals this season. Their 27 goals are the lowest in the division, barely behind Sunderland but well behind everyone else. They will be deservedly relegated.

That said, they can be a reasonably competent defensive side. They've conceded 50 goals, only eight more than Liverpool. Ten sides have conceded more, and their two other relegation compatriots have conceded 64 and 73. Five of Boro's seven 2017 league draws have finished 0-0. But five of those seven draws also came at home; Boro's 2017 away record is 2D-6L, two goals scored and 15 conceded.

Tomorrow's XI will probably be the same that lost 1-2 against Southampton last week. Guzan; Fabio, Chambers, Gibson, Friend; de Roon, Clayton, Forshaw; Bamford, Negredo, Downing. Victor Valdes and Gaston Ramirez are absent, while ex-Liverpool player Danny Ayala is doubtful. Maybe Adam Traore starts instead of Downing or Bamford; maybe Dimi Konstantopoulous starts instead of Brad Guzan – it's hard to be worse than Guzan, and I'm still comfortable writing that knowing how many opposition keepers have turned into brick walls against Liverpool.

Nonetheless, Gibson and Chambers can defend quite well. Clayton, de Roon, and Forshaw will hustle, bustle, and harry in their own half. And Boro will hope that Negredo can pull a rabbit from his hat at the other half maybe once or so. Or maybe Downing gets a set play. Or maybe Liverpool does a Liverpool.

So it's up to Liverpool. At home. Under an indescribable amount of pressure. Against a bottom three side who'll look to do nothing but defend and stifle and defend.

It, admittedly, is not my favorite scenario. And I cannot help but remind that Middlesbrough are the only relegated side that Liverpool haven't dropped points against.

But even though I can't help thinking about that, Liverpool can. Liverpool know what they need to do; the entire season's prepared for and led to this moment, this match, and they're coming off of an incredibly encouraging and vital result. And Liverpool are more than capable of doing it.

15 May 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Southampton (h), Watford (a), Crystal Palace (h), West Brom (a), Stoke (a), Bournemouth (h), Everton (h), Manchester City (h), 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.

Of course, we're going to start with Coutinho. Two goals and an assist. Six shots taken and six chances created – his contribution to 12 (of Liverpool's 26) shots was a Liverpool's player high for the season; he had 11 in the 0-2 loss at Burnley and 10 in the 6-1 win against Watford and 5-1 win against Hull.

The goals and assist are supremely important, and rightfully the centerpiece of his stat-line. But not far off was how he dictated play in midfield.

That's an impressively high percentage of forward passes for a central midfield and, more importantly, a good amount went into dangerous positions.

Compare that to last week's performances from Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum.

Can tried to push the play forward, more than any other Liverpool player. But it was still into less dangerous positions, primarily to Milner and Coutinho out wide, where Southampton easily snuffed out play. And Wijnaldum... well. As yesterday also demonstrated, when there's no space – as in the first half – Wijnaldum frustrates, Wijnaldum's irrelevant. When there's space – as in the second half, and as there's been in most games against the rest of the Top 7 this season – Wijnaldum can be very, very good.

Coutinho has the vision and ability to unlock sides from deeper positions – when he's got more of the pitch in front of him and more options to receive the ball – traits that Liverpool's other midfielders often lack. There will assuredly be matches where Coutinho in midfield simply does not work, and this was just one game, but I'm surprisingly optimistic that this can and will be a way that Liverpool fixes the "breaking down lesser sides" problem that's lingered all season.

Of course, it helps that he had a superlative outlet in Daniel Sturridge, as Match of the Day highlighted (we'll see how long this stays up):

Those are the types of runs we excoriated Origi for not making in the last few matches. And especially amusing – about two-thirds the way through the video – was a pass that Sturridge played when dropping deeper to force Origi to make one of those runs; he's static when Sturridge releases the ball but still gets onto it first. Those are passes that weren't getting played against Southampton, Watford, etc. Not to mention his ability to create shots for himself or ability with the ball at his feet.

Get more and better attacking players onto the pitch, and get them in positions where they can better influence the game. What a revelation.

And while West Ham didn't offer much, and Liverpool were incredibly lucky to see Ayew mess up the most clear-cut of chances, a quick mention for Liverpool's defense.

Liverpool remain very good at limiting opportunities; West Ham's 10 shots – three fewer than their season-long average – were the most an opponent's had since City's 13 in the 1-1 draw at the Etihad nearly two months ago. Of course, Liverpool remain less good at limiting clear-cut chances. When the opposition scores them – *glares at Bournemouth, Palace* – bad things can happen. When Ayew misses twice from point-blank range, or Mignolet denies Berahino or Matty Phillips, Liverpool finds a way to pull out the win. The last time Liverpool gave up a goal that wasn't a clear-cut chance was Leicester's second back at the end of February, Drinkwater's unrepeatable blast from well outside the box.

Liverpool have now registered three consecutive away clean sheets for first time under Klopp, for the first time since January-February 2015, when Liverpool won 1-0 at Sunderland, 2-0 at Villa, and drew 0-0 at Everton. And that run in 2014-15 was Premier League only, bracketing a 0-1 League Cup defeat at Chelsea and 2-1 FA Cup win at Bolton.

For all our (valid) complaints, Liverpool have done well since the beginning of March, trying to seal a fourth-place spot after the repeated failings during those awful winter months.

There have been disappointments – specifically Bournemouth and Palace – but only Chelsea and Tottenham have taken more points per game in these last 11 matches. And Bournemouth and Palace, along with Leicester – who beat Liverpool prior to that match against Arsenal to start this stretch – have been two of the best performing sides since, all three potential relegation candidates before March began. Only Tottenham, Chelsea, and City have scored more than Liverpool – putting four past West Ham obviously helped that – and only Tottenham and United have conceded fewer.

24 points from 11 matches – 2.18 points per game – averages out to 83 points over the course of a season. I'd take that any season.

Just one more match to improve that run. Just one more match to achieve Liverpool's primary goal for this campaign.

14 May 2017

Liverpool 4-0 West Ham

Sturridge 35'
Coutinho 57' 61'
Origi 76'

I had honestly forgotten what Liverpool running riot looked like. What Liverpool running riot felt like.

It's not bad.

This is the first time Liverpool have scored four goals in a match in 2017. It's the first time Liverpool have won by four or more goals since November, and the first time they've done so away from home since February 2016.

Liverpool had scored three goals, combined, in their last four games. West Ham had conceded none in their last three.

Liverpool scored four, hit the crossbar three times, and could have had a couple goals more with a smarter final pass or a little more luck. And Liverpool conceded none, for the third consecutive away match and the fourth time in the last five matches.

And it all happened when Liverpool simply had no choice but to win.

It is very, very tempting to completely credit Liverpool's change in personnel and formation. After the staid monotony of the last month, Sturridge finally starts, with Coutinho dropping into midfield and Liverpool switching to a 4-4-2 diamond. And Sturridge scores Liverpool's crucial first-half opener. And it's set up by Coutinho, who also gets Liverpool's game-killing second and third.

Both, obviously, played very well. Liverpool's system worked very well, surprisingly well given how a narrow 4-4-2 diamond often struggles against three-at-the-back, play often congested in the opposition's half and lots of space for opposition wing-backs on the counter, both traits that Liverpool are prone to in most matches.

But even in 4-0 wins, it remains amusing and amazing how things might have been had just a couple of moments gone differently.

When Liverpool were actually exposed on the counter in just the seventh minute, the first chance for either side in the game. Cresswell to Lanzini to Calleri to a couldn't-have-been-more-open Byram, but his shot fortunately pulled wide.

When Jose Fonte lost his mind in the 35th, a yard behind the two other defenders holding the offside line, allowing Sturridge a clear run onto Coutinho's wonderful through ball, jinking around Adrian to slot in, a warm reminder of the heights hit in 2013-14. Liverpool had looked a more potent attacking force in the 34 previous minutes, but Liverpool hadn't scored and Liverpool had hit the bar, and frustrated felt a lot closer than it should have because that's what we've become used to.

When Liverpool once again shot itself in both feet defending a corner in the 44th minute. Liverpool are in control, and it's West Ham's first notable foray forward since that Byram chance nearly 40 minutes earlier. And Lanzini's cross in ricochets off Lovren and falls perfectly for Ayew sitting on the goal line. He's open, at the back post, literally two feet from goal. And he hits the post. Not once but twice.

When Gini Wijnaldum gets away with both an accidental handball and accidental elbow as Liverpool are defending another West Ham corner, and Liverpool break down the field despite Winston Reid holding his head in Liverpool's box, the move ending with Coutinho's second goal and Liverpool's game-killing third as West Ham are unable to scramble back into position with their sweeper lying prone 80 yards away. Sure, Liverpool are 2-0 up by this point thanks to Coutinho picking up the rebound from Wijnaldum's unbelievable volley off the crossbar, strolling around two West Ham defenders before slotting in from the top of the box. And Liverpool had started the second half on fire, with earlier efforts from Origi, Sturridge, Lallana, and Wijnaldum denied. But 2-0 turning into 2-1 away from home with 30 minutes to play? Yikes.

But at 3-0? Game over. Thankfully, relievedly over, with West Ham throughly beaten and barely trying, and Origi adding a scrambled fourth, hitting the crossbar from 30 yards out, and completely ignoring Sturridge when released on the break, choosing to tamely shoot at Adrian instead.

So, yes, be pleased with how the changes worked out, especially in attack, and very, very pleased with the result. Be thrilled that Liverpool delivered under this pressure, after last week's let-down and Arsenal's riot yesterday. Be impressed that Liverpool had four clear-cut chances for the first time since February and registered their highest shot total since November. Be encouraged by Sturridge's return on his first league start since October, and how his movement and ability to create shots by himself made Liverpool that much more potent. Be optimistic about how Coutinho's future in midfield; it's the first time he's been involved in three Liverpool goals in one game since joining the club and it's not coincidence that today saw the most through balls that Liverpool have played in a match this season. Make sure to recognize Can's performance when returned to the base of midfield, Wijnaldum's two assists to take him up to 10 for the season, Origi's improvement when playing with a strike partner, and Mignolet's few but necessary saves, claims, and punches.

But also remember how different things might have been. How fine the margins have been throughout 2017, whether winning 4-0 or 1-0, or drawing 0-0, or losing 1-2.

And remember that nothing's accomplished yet, with one more all-important game left to win.

13 May 2017

Liverpool at West Ham 05.14.17

9:15am ET, live in the US on CNBC

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 12.11.16
1-2 West Ham (a; FA Cup) 02.09.16
0-0 (h; FA Cup) 01.30.16
0-2 West Ham (a) 01.02.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Southampton (h); 1-0 Watford (a); 1-2 Palace (h)
West Ham: 1-0 Tottenham (h); 0-0 Stoke (a); 0-0 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 13; Firmino 11; Coutinho 10; Lallana, Milner 7; Origi 6; Can, Wijnaldum 5; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
West Ham: Antonio 9; Lanzini 8; Carroll 7; Ayew 5; Noble 3; Collins, Feghouli, Payet, Reid 2; Calleri, Kouyate, Obiang, Sakho 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

Just two more matches, as Liverpool try to crawl across this marathon finish line.

And it's not getting any easier. One hand gives, the other takes away. Lallana and Sturridge are both finally fit enough to start, but Firmino and Lucas are now doubtful with muscle injuries. And Liverpool are traveling to opposition they've been very bad against in recent seasons, whether in the league or cups, whether with a depleted side or a full complement of players.

I wouldn't necessarily be surprised to see either or both of Firmino and Lucas play. Firmino has been "doubtful" and "had his fitness managed" for about a month now. Lucas was back in training yesterday, and should be able to complete two sessions before this fixture.

But let's guess that neither will start. The defense and midfield are easy to guess: the same back four as we've seen in the last few matches – the "preferred" back four – and Lallana in midfield, with Can in the holding role. The front three is harder to guess. Both Sturridge and Origi would probably have to play; I highly doubt it'd be Alexander-Arnold or Woodburn, and if Lallana comes into the front three, I've no idea who comes into midfield. But one of Sturridge or Origi would probably, ostensibly, have to play on the right in Liverpool's usual 4-3-3 formation.

Both Origi and Sturridge have played well with a strike partner in the past – and Origi's simply not been good in this formation, with these tactics, against congested opposition lately – but as much as I'd like to guess a 4-4-2 diamond, it's not a formation which matches up well against West Ham's 3-4-3. Regardless of formation or personnel, we are going to need to see much better movement from Liverpool's front three, making runs, using the channels, drawing center-backs out of preferred positions. But maybe we'll get Firmino. And if that's the case, I hope we also get Sturridge rather than Origi, for all the reasons I've written about over the last few weeks.

But if Liverpool think they've got it bad with injuries, take a look at West Ham's casualty list. Carroll, Antonio, Noble, Kouyate, Sakho, Obiang, and Ogbonna. Two strikers, three central midfielders, a center-back, and an archetypal utility player who could feature in any position. Five players who featured in the 2-2 draw at Anfield, including the starting (and goal-scoring) striker, both central midfielders, and one of two center-backs. A player who's scored against Liverpool in all three of his starts against Liverpool. Liverpool's former club record signing, who also scored in this fixture last season. West Ham's long-serving captain, who has 16 appearances against Liverpool.

That's a lot of very important players absent. And it's not as if West Ham have a ton to play for, safe for a few weeks, now on 42 points, smack in the middle of the 8th to 15th pack. And yet, West Ham are unbeaten in their last five matches. They've kept three consecutive clean sheets, since switching to three at the back. They're coming off what's arguably they're most impressive home win of the season, in their new stadium, beating London rivals Tottenham, what was basically the final nail in Tottenham's title chase coffin.

Adrian; Fonte, Reid, Collins; Byram, Fernandes, Nordtveit, Cresswell; Lanzini, Calleri, Ayew. Ashley Fletcher's an option up front, Feghouli and Snodgrass could play in the attacking midfield/wide forward roles, but otherwise, West Ham are down to the barest of bones. For what that's worth, given recent form, recent meetings, and Liverpool's never-ending ability to Liverpool.

Those wing-backs can easily cause Liverpool problems on the counter: expansive, quick, and excellent crossers. West Ham's supporting attackers – likely to be Ayew and Lanzini – will cut inside and switch positions and overload and generally look to create confusion, and Liverpool aren't the best at handling confusion. And even with two stand-in central midfielders, West Ham are likely to be defensively secure, with three mountain center-backs who have all stifled better and more in-form Liverpool attacks in the past.

Not to mention the strange voodoo that Slaven Bilic has against the club. Liverpool have beaten one of his teams just once in seven matches: the first leg of a Round of 32 Europa League tie against Besiktas in 2014-15, a tie that Liverpool ended up losing on penalties. With West Ham, Bilic's won three and drawn two. Liverpool's last win over West Ham is Liverpool's last game against West Ham before Bilic became manager, way back in January 2015.

None of that can matter. The past has to be the past: past meetings against West Ham and past failures which have left Liverpool in this position, whether last week's or last month's or five months ago. Liverpool need to win tomorrow, and then Liverpool need to win again. Liverpool need six points from these last two matches, because nothing else seems likely to suffice.

But tomorrow first. Nothing but tomorrow. Nothing but West Ham, and righting recent wrongs. And nothing but a win.

08 May 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Southampton

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (a), Crystal Palace (h), West Brom (a), Stoke (a), Bournemouth (h), Everton (h), Manchester City (h), 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.

On April 1, Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 at Anfield. Liverpool sat third, just three points behind Tottenham, albeit having played one more game. Liverpool had a home record of 11W-3D-1L, and had just eight games left. It was the away matches which frightened: tough trips to grounds where Liverpool had recently or historically struggled. The home matches were supposed to be the easier fixtures.

Somehow, Liverpool have won all three of the away matches so far. But Liverpool have now taken just two of nine possible points from the first three of the four home matches, failing to win any of them. A late goal conceded to draw against Bournemouth, losing to Crystal Palace despite taking a 1-0 lead, and now an anemic draw against Southampton.

Liverpool have gone from pummeling sides at Anfield while hilariously failing away from home to grinding out away wins but unable to capitalize on Fortress Anfield. It's a strange end to a strange run-in to a strange season. Once again, if it's not one thing, it's something else. After fixing the kitchen sink, the dining room table collapses.

Incidentally, Liverpool remain without a home league win when Sadio Mané doesn't play. 11W-2D with Mané, 3D-2L without.

Aside from a handful of unsurprising, reoccurring defensive errors, the issues in these matches since Everton – both home and away, in wins, losses, or draws – has been Liverpool's attack.

Yesterday saw an unchanged XI for the fourth match in a row – the first time that's happened since January-February 2014.

Yesterday saw the same stuttering attack we've seen in the previous four matches, but without the one goal that Liverpool somehow managed in the previous three.

At least Liverpool took shots: 17, the highest total in this four-game run. And Liverpool put eight on-target. But they weren't good shots.

12 of Liverpool's 17 shots came from outside the box, by far the largest percentage this season. The only other match which comes close was the second of the season, the 0-2 loss at Burnley, where 17 of 26 came from outside the box. You remember that match, yes?

Liverpool also failed to create an open-play clear-cut chance for the second consecutive match. None at Watford, just Milner's saved penalty against Southampton. Liverpool had just one against Palace – Coutinho's blocked effort, where he probably should have dived for a penalty instead – and two against West Brom – Firmino's set play goal and Milner's wild miss. Four matches with the same XI. Just four clear-cut chances. Just one goal.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

This Liverpool team remains mostly reliant on goals. Sometimes, the defense is good enough, whether against Watford, West Brom, and Southampton or against City and Tottenham. Sometimes, as against Palace, Swansea, Sunderland, etc., it isn't. But almost everything good this season – especially against sides outside the Top 7 – has come when Liverpool's attack is good.

Specifically, Liverpool need early goals. When Liverpool score in the first half, the league record is 16W-5D-2L (2.30 ppg). When Liverpool don't, they've 4W-5D-4L (1.31 ppg). A few matches aside (looking at you, Bournemouth), how Liverpool start often tells us how Liverpool will finish. Yes, Liverpool's substitutes have scored at surprisingly effective rates under Jürgen Klopp, more than almost any other manager or side, but Liverpool's starting XI usually needs to be firing from the off.

I am more than willing to admit that the fitness staff and management know more about Sturridge's ability to start than I do. Sturridge hasn't played 90 minutes in the league this season. He's started just four league matches, the last at Sunderland on January 2. He's completed just three full matches, all in the League Cup: the 2-1 win over Tottenham and both semi-final legs against Southampton. Where, incidentally, Liverpool also failed to score.

But it's hard to look past what Sturridge did in 21 minutes compared to Origi. Two shots (a strong run and saved toe-poke, then a shot from distance whistling outside of the near post), three key passes (more than any other Liverpool player), and one more pass completed than Origi despite the 45-minute difference in playing time.

During this four-game run, Origi's taken all of five shots (three on-target, one off-target, one blocked; none especially threatening), and created just two chances (both at West Brom). He managed none yesterday – no shots, no key passes. That's incredibly not good.

Sturridge's attempted passes came in slightly more threatening positions, but more notable is the passes received chalkboard. Almost everything Origi did, almost everything Origi does – aside from receiving the chip which led to Southampton's handball and Liverpool's penalty, and one in-box headed flick-on – came in the channels. Origi just can't do it centrally, at least not against these sides, at least not when Liverpool's dominating possession without reward.

I can't get a 30-second spell from the 41st minute out of my head, where Origi stood in the penalty arc the entire time as Liverpool passed across the top of the final third literally nine times. Firmino to Coutinho to Lucas to Can to Lucas to Coutinho to Lucas to Coutinho to Firmino to Lucas to Southampton. The move ended with a mostly aimless Lucas chip into the box that Origi was unsurprisingly nowhere near, easily headed clear by Stephens.

It is harsh to single out a barely-22-year-old striker when Liverpool's other starting attackers aren't doing much more. But Liverpool have looked disjointed and vastly less threatening almost every single time that Origi has led the line this season, the 3-0 win at Middlesborough basically the only exception. Sturridge, if anywhere remotely fit, offers something much different. Sturridge – you know, the selfish me me me striker – is much better at linking up with and setting up Liverpool's other attackers and Sturridge is far more likely to create something from absolutely nothing.

And if not Sturridge, because injury, because lack of trust, at least play Roberto Firmino there. But not Divock Origi, not from the start, not as the lone striker, not in matches like these.

At least the defense was good, again, even if Southampton offered next to nothing going forward.

Liverpool haven't held their opponents without a shot on-target in both league meetings since I started doing these infographics in 2012-13. Southampton are the only league side that Liverpool have held to no shots on-target in a league match this season, and they've done it twice; it also happened twice last season, the 1-0 win over Swansea and 4-0 romp over Everton.

All that said, Liverpool were Fraser Forster's first ever penalty save away from a similar feeling to the 1-0 wins at West Brom and Watford. Had Milner converted in the 66th minute – as he'd done in seven previous attempts this season – we're lauding another hard-fought, ground-out win. Liverpool would be three points ahead of City. seven ahead of United, and nine ahead of Arsenal, no matter those sides' games-in-hand.

I wrote last week about Liverpool's fine margins last week, what with Emre Can's jaw-dropping goal and Seb Prödl clear-cut chance crashing off the crossbar rather than the back of the net. Liverpool were on the wrong end of them this week. But, as it stands, Liverpool remain on the right side of them with two games to play, as much due to other's failings as Liverpool's successes. And just barely.

07 May 2017

Liverpool 0-0 Southampton

Liverpool have played six hours of football against Southampton this season and failed to score.

Liverpool outshot Southampton 32 to 7 in the two league meetings this season. Both finished 0-0.

Southampton failed to put a single shot on target in either of those 0-0s this season. Liverpool had 10 of them.

Liverpool had three clear-cut chances in those two 0-0s. Clyne and Firmino missed the target at Southampton in November, and Milner had a penalty saved today.

Milner's saved penalty was the first time he'd failed to score a Premier League penalty since November 2009. It was the first time Fraser Forster's ever saved a Premier League penalty.

That penalty was Liverpool's only notable chance despite 66% possession – and it came from absolutely nothing, an unlucky handball on a basically aimless hoof forward – until Lallana and Sturridge came on. In the 69th minute. Because Liverpool thought it'd be a good idea to start the same front six which has struggled so mightily in attack in the last three matches. Which has scored just three goals – a quasi-fortunate set play header, a wonderful free kick, and a bicycle kick that Emre Can will never, ever replicate.

Liverpool had just eight shots in those first 69 minutes and nine shots in the 21 minutes after.

Once again, Liverpool have been frustrated by a side who wanted nothing more than to stifle and smother in the defensive third. Once again, Liverpool have failed to break down a side who wanted nothing more than to stifle and smother in the defensive third. Once again, Liverpool have dropped indescribably vital points against a side who wanted nothing more than to stifle and smother in the defensive third.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

At least Liverpool didn't lose, I guess.

You can blame Milner for his first poor penalty at the eighth time of asking this season, or Milner and Clyne for not creating anywhere near enough, and not for the first time. You can blame Divock Origi for being wholly unsuited to leading the line in matches like these. You can blame Lucas for not being creative enough in matches like these, you can blame Wijnaldum for being even more invisible than he usually is away from Anfield. You can even blame Fraser Forster if you like, somehow once again turning into a wonder keeper when playing Liverpool, in complete contrast to almost every other match, not only stopping Milner's penalty but denying Sturridge's clever toe-poke in the 78th, Grujic's late late header, and five other more speculative efforts.

You should probably blame Jürgen Klopp for starting this XI once again, specifically that front six in those roles, despite seeing how it has performed and knowing how Southampton would play, and for waiting for more than two-thirds of the match to make the necessary and obvious changes. Yes, yes, Lallana is coming off an extended injury and needed to play for longer than expected six days ago. Yes, yes, Sturridge is Sturridge. This still seems the most unforgivable part of a fairly unforgivable match.

Six days after a confidence-boosting result at Watford, a top four place is back out of Liverpool's hands. Winning the last two games might not be enough. And Liverpool's next game is away against a side they haven't beaten in the last five meetings. A side coming off a massive victory against their closest rivals, where they stopped those closest rivals – a much more potent side than this incarnation of Liverpool – from scoring.

Liverpool are almost out of chances. And Liverpool are out of excuses.

06 May 2017

Liverpool v Southampton 05.07.17

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Southampton (h; League Cup) 01.25.17
0-1 Southampton (a; League Cup) 01.11.17
0-0 (a) 11.19.16
2-3 Southampton (a) 03.20.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Watford (a); 1-2 Palace (h); 1-0 West Brom (a)
Southampton: 0-0 Hull (h); 2-4 Chelsea (a); 0-3 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 13; Firmino 11; Coutinho 10; Lallana, Milner 7; Origi 6; Can, Wijnaldum 5; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Southampton: Austin, Redmond 6; Gabbiadini, Rodriguez, Ward-Prowse 4; Long, Tadic 3; Bertrand 2; Boufal, Clasie, Romeu, Yoshida, van Dijk 1

Referee: Bobby Madley (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

Adam Lallana in the front three usually hasn't worked this season. It's rarely looked like the few times that front three dominated last season, and it certainly hasn't been anywhere near as good as when Lallana plays in midfield. But at least Coutinho should also be back, which would help. And, more importantly (and sadly), Divock Origi has been officially bad lately.

It's not entirely Origi's fault. He's rarely had a consistent run this season, and his entrance into the XI came at the same time Liverpool lost crucial players in Mané, Lallana, and Henderson. But he also hasn't scored since Bournemouth, his first start in this five-game run. He's put just four shots on-target in those five starts and created just five chances. He's not done enough, either individually or to bolster the rest of the attack.

And Roberto Firmino is most assuredly better in a central role.

Given form, I'd rather see Origi make way than Lucas as well, with the Wijnaldum-Lucas-Can midfield surprisingly decent of late. Especially with Can able to make attacking runs like that which led to the winner at Watford, rather than Can attempting to sit deeper and usually pulled from side to side.

I'd also be more than happy to see Sturridge up front with Firmino and Coutinho – I want to believe, etc. – but I'm not holding my breath on that front.

If Coutinho's not ready, it'll probably have to be Origi. And I'd hope it'd be with him on the left with Firmino central. Or, Lallana left and Firmino right if Klopp feels as if Origi has to play centrally. Just not Firmino on the left. That was very, very not good at Watford last week. But the key word is "hope." A front six of Wijnaldum, Lucas, Can; Lallana, Origi, Firmino – just as after Coutinho's injury last week – wouldn't surprise at all. Even if it would disappoint.

Either way, Liverpool need more firepower up front. Liverpool need to create more and better chances, Liverpool need to take more and better shots. They've not been able to do so in far too long, basically since Mané's injury. They've still done alright during this stretch, grinding out impressive wins at Stoke, West Brom, and Watford, even if also throwing away two points against Bournemouth and living through that Crystal Palace debacle. But Liverpool especially need more firepower against this Southampton side.

The Liverpool v Southampton narrative remains overarching and overwhelming. Yes, Liverpool have signed five Southampton players in the last couple of seasons, including three likely to start tomorrow. Yes, Liverpool are winless in three matches against Southampton this season, including two 0-1 losses in the League Cup semifinal, winless in the last three league matches against Southampton, and winless in the last four in all competitions. Liverpool haven't scored, Liverpool haven't done enough to score, in any of this season's meetings.

Yes, this has not been a fun fixture recently.

Southampton are also kind of, sort of ready for the season to end. Comfortably in the mid-table pack, they've failed to win their last three matches, including drubbings against both City and Chelsea and an insipid 0-0 against Hull. They've five fixtures left compared to Liverpool's three, thanks to rescheduling, featuring games against Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United. Southampton will have a lot to say about who's finishing fourth, and I'm sure they know it.

Last season, Southampton finished with 63 points, three points and two places ahead of Liverpool. This season they'll be lucky to get 50.

But Southampton also keep rolling on, replacing both players and manager without too much change in tactics or fortune. Southampton are still pretty Southampton, as this season's three meetings have demonstrated. Hard-working. Diligent. Capable. Etc. They can be quite defensively secure, even if matches against both City and Chelsea suggest otherwise; it's hard to stay as good defensively as you've been when Virgil van Dijk's injured and Fonte's been sold.

And Southampton remain incredibly goal-shy, even more so than last season. Austin and Rodriguez have been injured for long stretches, although Gabbiadini has been a helpful January acquisition. Only six sides have scored fewer goals this season: Stoke, Watford, Hull, Burnley, Boro, and Sunderland. Only three sides have had fewer clear-cut chances: Burnley, Hull, and Sunderland. I doubt I need remind how Liverpool defended against most of those sides.

Tomorrow's XI will probably be Forster; Cedric, Stephens, Yoshida, Bertrand; Ward-Prowse, Romeu, Davis; Tadic, Gabbiadini, Redmond. And except for Gabbiadini, that's the same side which Liverpool lost to at Anfield back in January's second-leg semifinal. The aforementioned van Dijk and Austin are absent, while Boufal is doubtful. Redmond is a true threat, the type of player who'll give either of Liverpool's full-backs multiple problems, as he did in both League Cup matches. Tadic and Ward-Prowse can do set plays and crosses, and Gabbiadini's a handful, but otherwise, it's about what Liverpool can do to break down and break through a deep and determined defensive midfield and a well-positioned back four. As per usual.

Last week's win over Watford has given Liverpool a modicum of breathing room. City are back in front of Liverpool in third, level on points and matches, but well ahead on goal difference after absolutely housing Palace, while United remain four points back with a game in hand. It's not much of a modicum; Liverpool still need to travel to West Ham, a side they haven't beaten away from home since 2013-14 and a side they haven't beaten anywhere in the last five meeting, then host Boro, likely to be relegated by that point but Liverpool against relegation zone sides, etc.

Liverpool still need to treat the next game as if it's the last. By any means necessary.

02 May 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Watford

Previous Match Infographics: Crystal Palace (h), West Brom (a), Stoke (a), Bournemouth (h), Everton (h), Manchester City (h), 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.

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

Winning ugly is a process, it's not immediate.

2-1 Stoke, 1-0 West Brom, and now 1-0 Watford, in Liverpool's last three away matches. Against the exact type of sides who'd caused Liverpool countless, routine problems less than a month or two ago.

Sure, there are also 2-2 Bournemouth and 1-2 Crystal Palace in that run. With a similar paucity of shots and goals but also with dumb concessions, with late concessions. But there hasn't been a run like 2-2 Sunderland, 0-0 Plymouth, 0-1 Southampton, 1-1 United, 1-0 Plymouth, 2-3 Swansea, 0-1 Southampton, and 1-1 Wolves, despite Liverpool missing even more players than they were in January.

Because it's a process, it's not immediate. Even if we dearly wish it would be a much, much quicker process.

The last time Liverpool won consecutive league games away from home by a 1-0 margin was December-January 2014/15, at Burnley and Sunderland.

Compared to Liverpool's last match, even compared to Liverpool's last 1-0 away win, Liverpool were better in attack – but definitely needed Emre Can's hapax legomenon to open up space for the second half improvement – and were excellent in defense.

Liverpool still aren't getting or taking enough shots, too many still come from outside the box, the attack still breaks down too often in the final third, especially at the feet of Liverpool's full-backs, but at least Liverpool took double-digit shots, tested Heurelho Gomes with eight of them, and weren't reliant on set plays for their lone goal.

But yeah, it's all about Emre Can's strike. You know what, let's just watch that a few more times.

Good lord.

Incidentally, that was Lucas' third assist in his last five games. The last time Lucas had more than two in a Premier League season was 2007-08. Lucas has played 244 Premier League games for Liverpool over ten seasons. 20% of his Premier League assists have come in the last five. Each one's led to Liverpool's eventual winner: 2-1 v Everton, 1-0 at West Brom, and now 1-0 at Watford. Not a bad way to almost certainly end what's been an eventual Liverpool tenure.

And yeah, Liverpool were excellent in defense. Aerial duels, clearances, tackles. Goalkeeper claims and punches. Restricting Watford to just one in-box shot before second-half added time, Amrabat's effort in the 68th minute swiftly blocked by Lovren. Until the 93rd minute, that is, when Sebastian Prödl crashed the game's only clear-cut chance off the crossbar. It was reminiscent of Liverpool's 2-1 win at Swansea, holding onto a narrow lead away from home against diligent and determined, if not especially powerful opposition, only to see a clear-cut chance from an unnecessary set play narrowly miss Liverpool's goal.

I've said it before and I'll undoubtedly say it again. You need that bit of luck, at both ends of the pitch, whether you're fighting for the title, the top four, or against relegation. Especially when Coutinho goes off injured after 12 minutes. When Mané and Henderson are still absent, and the outstanding Adam Lallana's not really ready to play the 70+ minutes he simply had to play. When Firmino – in an unfamiliar left-sided role – and Wijnaldum are anonymous. When Origi still struggles in almost every aspect of being a striker except moments of decent hold-up play. When both Clyne and Milner demonstrably show just how many games they've played this season with every touch of the ball.

You still need Mignolet to make two necessary saves – even if both of Watford's shots on-target came from miles out – along with six claimed crosses and a couple of strong punches. You need Lovren and Matip to clear almost everything put in front of them.

But you also need Seb Prödl to smash the game's only clear-cut chance off the bar rather than the back of the net. And you need Emre Can to score the best goal we've seen in many, many seasons.

Those are the margins Liverpool have to deal with during this crucial run-in. There's Can's wizardry and Prödl's fortune. There's Mignolet somehow saving efforts from Berahino and Phillips. But there's also Josh King's late scrambled strike. There's Lovren twice losing his mind against Crystal Palace. Going further back, there's somehow conceding two stupid penalties at Sunderland, there's Llorente scoring two goals from two shots on-target against Swansea.

All Liverpool need to do is finish on the positive side of these fine margins.

Three matches left.