29 August 2017

On Naby Keita

We've got to wait a year – WHICH SUCKS; GRATIFY ME NOW – but it's official. Naby Keita will be a Liverpool player. Later, rather than sooner, specifically on July 1, 2018. 306 days from now. Let the countdown begin.

Liverpool are paying more than next summer's release clause – reportedly around £55m – to ensure that Naby Keita will be a Liverpool player next season. There will not be a chance for other clubs to jump in ahead of Liverpool. He will be a Liverpool player whether or not Liverpool are in next season's Champions League. We'd all prefer it'd be this season than next, but RB Leipzig just weren't going to sell now. If now isn't an option, a year from now is the best possible outcome. Because Naby Keita will be a Liverpool player.

And I cannot wait. Because I do not understand Naby Keita.

Wait, that came out wrong. Let me rephrase.

I do not understand how Naby Keita does everything that Naby Keita does.

I do not understand how a player who scored eight goals and tallied seven assists in the league last season – with only one assist and no goals from set plays; the others all from open play – also averaged more than three tackles and three interceptions every 90 minutes.

I do not understand how that same player – a central midfielder capable of playing in literally any midfield role – also completes more than three successful dribbles per 90, with a surprisingly large amount through the congested center of the opposition's half.

I do not understand how a player this well-rounded, who does almost everything exceptionally well, who has almost no statistical midfield peer (*waves at Thiago Alcantara and Luka Modric and that's about it*), is only 22 years old.

I do not understand Naby Keita. And that is very much a good thing.

*long, low whistle*

Naby Keita's attacking statistics are similar to Adam Lallana's, the most potent of Liverpool's midfielders last season. His defensive statistics are almost all better than both Can and Henderson's. He's more well-rounded that Gini Wijnaldum. There's no point even including Lucas Leiva in the above chart, who played half of his matches as a center-back and still only surpasses Keita in fouls committed and aerial duels. None of Liverpool's central midfielders are anywhere near as talented as Keita when running with the ball; Keita's successful dribbles per 90 and dribble success rate even surpass Coutinho's (2.81 per 90, 61.95% success rate). No central midfielder who made at least 10 Bundesliga appearances averaged more dribbles per 90 minutes than Naby Keita.

The shorter version. His attacking output reminds me of Lallana, but he's seven years younger. His late runs into the box and movement remind me of Wijnaldum, but he's a vastly more influential player. His dribbling reminds me of Coutinho, who played "wide" in the front three for the vast majority of last season. And his recovery when chasing down the opposition, his octopus-esque tackles and interceptions, don't remind me of anyone in the current Liverpool squad, because no one does it anywhere near as well as Keita does.

Let's play the precedent game.

There's some Gerrard to him: a midfielder with an almost complete tool set, but that's not close enough. Keita doesn't have the physicality or size, but is also clearly an out-and-out central midfielder. Unlike Gerrard, who often never seemed disciplined enough, whose best seasons came as a #10 or as a right-winger (and I will probably die with the words "Gerrard should have been a right-back" on my lips).

There's some Yaya Toure to him: a complete midfielder from box to box, a player supposedly his idol. Keita clearly doesn't have Toure's CLANK CLANK REMOVE YOURSELF FROM MY PATH, PUNY HUMANS physicality, but he's also a vastly superior passer and dribbler, much quicker and smarter in possession, and better at taking the ball from the other team.

There's more than some Iniesta to him: his ability with the ball, his ability on the ball, his ability in tight spaces, but there's also a lot more going on in defense. And a similar comparison can be made with the too-quickly-forgotten Deco – a nickname he inherited early in his career and is still referred to in his Instagram handle.

And yes, there's a little bit of Makelele or Kante because of those defensive abilities, but it's a comparison far too facile and made far too often solely because of his skin color. Mascherano applies too, especially in the way he chases down attackers, but Keita is light years upon light years better on the ball than all three.

There are a lot of different archetypes rolled into one midfielder here. And, again, it's a 22-year-old midfielder we're talking about here. Who did all these things when playing for the second-place side in the second- or third-best league in Europe, a side which was playing in the German second division just two seasons ago.

I do not understand Naby Keita. Naby Keita is utterly baffling. And in the best possible way.

There is almost nothing concerning. Almost no weaknesses, which is something you can't write about 99% of the midfielders in football. But there are a couple.

Keita's only real fault is his aerial ability. He's a wee little fella, in a team already full of wee little fellas. Naby Keita is 5'7", which would somewhat frighten if he's deployed as the deepest midfielder in the band of three that Liverpool usually plays, given certain sides' delight at launching long balls into Liverpool's defensive third. That and he commits fouls at a fairly high rate – just like Emre Can – which, considering Liverpool's set play defending, etc etc.

But I also don't think Naby Keita will play as Liverpool's deepest midfielder all that often. There will be times, because of the amount of matches to come, because injuries are inevitable, but that's not where I expect he'll primarily be deployed.

Speaking of injuries, that's the one bane to completing a transfer a year ahead of time. Let us bow our heads and pray, and hope that absolutely nothing happens to our dear Naby Keita over the next 12 months. RB Leipzig know they're not going to have the player after this season – not that they were going to anyway – and if they're absolute jerks, they could run him into the ground. Protect your neck, kid.

And, as with Salah – who's already made a massive difference, even if we'd all appreciate putting away more of his chances – I have absolutely no concerns about the transfer fee.

I write this with no exaggeration. I am no expert – you should know this by now – but having watched far too many of Keita's matches and read into Keita's stats far too deeply over the last two months, I am damned near convinced that he is uniquely, superlatively talented. That he is worth every cent, pence, and euro of his transfer fee, even though it's by far the club record, even though he's still not joining Liverpool for another year.

That Naby Keita is a prototypical Jürgen Klopp type of player. That Naby Keita is already one of the best midfielders in the world. That he'll probably get even better at RB Leipzig over the course of this season, in the Champions League, in a side that every other Bundesliga side will be gunning for. That he has the potential to be one of the best midfielders to ever play the game. And that he is the sort of player who helps you win the league.

It's not a deal that should have any impact on whether Coutinho stays or goes, either this summer or next. But it will make the pain less if the Brazilian does depart next year. I can't do anything but take Liverpool at face value, and continue to believe that Coutinho will still be with the club comes September 1. It's even better if this is the sort of deal that helps convince Coutinho that this is the sort of club he should be at.

Either way, it is another masterstroke by Liverpool's often-criticized recruitment department. Firmino, very much a Michael Edwards and Transfer Committee deal, prior to Klopp's arrival. Mané, Salah, and now Keita for eye-watering fees that are still well-below market value. Wijnaldum and Matip, seemingly successes, if to a lesser extent. Grujic and Robertson odds-on to come good in the future. It's a fantastic deal for a player who'll improve Liverpool immeasurably next season, who will still only be 23 when he joins the club. It's evidence of long-term planning, something which rarely happened under previous managers or transfer committees.

This season's just started – we're just coming off a 4-0 win over Arsenal, for heaven's sake – and I already can't wait for next season.

It truly is fun when Liverpool are fun again.

28 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored and Liverpool FC

As said yesterday, this played out an awful lot like Liverpool's Champions League qualifier. The same set-up from both sides. The opposition blown away from the start. Four Liverpool goals. Almost exact passing totals from the two sides.

Arsenal's opposition scouting has a lot to answer for here.

This is the also second game in a row where Liverpool had six Opta-defined clear-cut chances. Liverpool didn't have six in a match at all last season. And, like Hoffenheim, Arsenal had none.

I still maintain that I'd blame Arsene Wenger for this defeat far more than I would the Arsenal players, but I will also readily admit that individuals did not help their cause. Most of the criticism has fallen on Arsenal's first half midfield, especially Ramsey, or Bellerin's error for Liverpool's third. I'd like to highlight Arsenal's supposed defensive stalwart, the rock between a youngster and a left-back.

Just before the first goal. Koscielny clearly has Firmino.

Koscielny does not have Firmino.

Then, the fourth goal. Koscielny clearly has Sturridge; he's even looking right at him!

Koscielny does not have Sturridge.

If this were from Dejan Lovren, we'd be howling for weeks.

Conversely, while there are a ton of very good things to pick out from individual Liverpool players – the potency of that front three, Wijnaldum completing eight successful take-ons, Emre Can's role in transitions – I'd like to point out one that I've seen go unmentioned so far. Liverpool's first two goals came from Joe Gomez interceptions: one in the final third, one in Liverpool's penalty box. Guile and ability from a 20-year-old who's hardly featured over the last two seasons, at both ends of the pitch, including a weaker-footed assist perfectly weighted to open the scoring. From the third-choice right-back, who's also fourth-choice center-back.

Liverpool have now kept seven clean sheets in their last nine PL games, going back to mid-April last season. Matip-Lovren started all but Liverpool's 1-0 win over Palace last week. There have been ground-out wins: 1-0 West Brom, Watford, and Palace. There have been massacres: 4-0 West Ham, 3-0 Boro, and 4-0 Arsenal. There have been frustrations: 0-0 Southampton. And there have been mistakes: 1-2 Palace, 3-3 Watford. Three of the five goals conceded – one against Palace and two against Watford – came from corners.

There are still mistakes in that unit. It's still too shallow for my liking, with another center-back seemingly necessary. But, because of those notable errors, because of the set play failings, we're sometimes blinded to the fact that it's actually better than we admit.

It's been two years since any side kept a clean sheet in this fixture – since 0-0 at Arsenal under Rodgers in August 2015. It's been more than 11 years since Liverpool kept a clean sheet in this fixture at Anfield, since a 1-0 win in February 2006. This was the first time Arsenal's been held without a shot on-target since October 2014. It's only the fifth time that Liverpool have held a league opponent without a shot on-target under Jürgen Klopp.

It was as thorough a beating as possible. And we're all aware of how good it was in attack. How good Firmino, Mané, and Salah already are, and can continue to be, especially when they're allowed this much space and that many chances to counter. But we also need recognize how good Liverpool were, and can be, in both midfield and defense as well, in contrast to what we feared after the first two games of the season.

27 August 2017

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

Firmino 17'
Mané 40'
Salah 57'
Sturridge 77'

We make this joke a lot, usually in matches against other top-six sides. But I truly do wish Liverpool could play Arsenal every week.

Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool have now played Arsenal four times. They've scored at least three goals in all four of those matches. This, however, was the first time that Liverpool also kept a clean sheet. Because Arsenal failed to put a single shot on-target. It's the first time that Liverpool kept a clean sheet against Arsenal at Anfield since February 2006. Yes. More than 11 years ago.

It comes down to two factors. How good Liverpool can be in attack, and the choices that Arsenal – read: Arsene Wenger – made to take on the hosts.

That Arsenal attempted to play the same system and style that Hoffenheim tried at Anfield was a bad idea. Liverpool's midfield again looked a real midfield, out-numbering and over-powering Ramsey and Xhaka in the middle. And then Firmino, Mané, and Salah wreaked utter destruction, because that's what that front three does.

Liverpool should have opened the scoring at the exact same moment as against Hoffenheim as well. A tenth-minute clear-cut chance created by Can and Firmino, taken by Salah, but saved by Cech. At least we wouldn't have to wait much longer. Gomez stealing the ball in Arsenal's half, interplay between him, Salah, and Can, Gomez's cross to an unmarked Firmino run into the box, easily headed past Cech.

One goal from pressing, nearly another two minutes later – Henderson robbing possession, to Firmino, back to Henderson, missed wide from a narrow angle – then three from counter-attacking.

Do not let Liverpool score early, and then do not give Liverpool space.

Do. Not. Give. Liverpool. Space.

I mean, I really want you to. But you probably shouldn't.

It's the 40th minute. Liverpool have had chances to extend their lead but haven't yet, something which always makes as nervous. And Arsenal are in Liverpool's box. But a Gomez interception to Wijnaldum to Can to Firmino to Mané, now one-on-one with poor Rob Holding in Arsenal's box. A cut onto his right, even though every human in the world knows he's cutting onto his right, and a curler past Cech. 16 seconds from start to finish.

2-0 at halftime absolutely did not flatter the home side.

Hoffenheim at least changed to a 4-2-3-1 in the 24th minute to stem Liverpool's tide. It took Arsenal until halftime. And they were better for about ten minutes after the restart, but without reward, any really semblance of reward. Too little, too late. And then Liverpool took over again. Salah, again denied from a close-range clear-cut chance on the counter. Then Salah, finally, with the ball in the back of the net: an Arsenal corner, but Salah robbing Bellerin after the cross is cleared, then sprinting two-thirds the pitch to slot past Cech, seven seconds from start to finish.

57 minutes into the match, and all three of Liverpool's front three have scored. Just as happened at Watford on opening day, almost to the exact second.

From there, Arsenal truly beaten. From there, Liverpool buoyant, passing with purpose, denying chances, in control and always looking for that counter.

A chance to make subs, to rest players after the exertions since the start of the season. And the first substitute gets Liverpool's fourth. Arsenal's cross easily dealt with, Gomez to Firmino, who unbelievably turns away from and between two defenders and finds Can, to Salah, a couldn't-be-better-aimed cross from the left to a couldn't-be-more-open Sturridge at the back post. 15 seconds from start to finish. Sturridge's first goal at Anfield – in front of the Kop – since December.

There's not much else to be said about Liverpool's attack. They are good. Really good. Good in games where there's a lack of space, as at Watford, and really, really good in games like this. There's Sturridge, Solanke, and Origi off the bench, there's Coutinho and Lallana to return from injury. They're all gonna score a lot of goals, and even more goals when Salah starts consistently converting great chances.

It's been five games now. Mané, Firmino, and Salah have all scored three goals. Firmino's got three assists, Mané two, and Salah one. Through five games, Liverpool have had 18 clear-cut chances, an average of 3.5 per game, and Salah, Firmino, and Mané have been on the end of 14 of those. Liverpool averaged 1.9 in the league last season.

But again, I'm almost as impressed with the midfield, if only because we expect this from the attack. Getting this sort of play from Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Can wasn't anywhere near as expected, especially after the first two fixtures. We got the passing, covering, and pressing – especially pressing – from Henderson that we saw on Wednesday. Wijnaldum on the ball was something to behold, surging runs forward, breaking Arsenal ankles on three separate occasions, exactly what he's needed to do. And Emre Can was undeniable, adding passes like those to free Firmino and Salah on the break for Liverpool's second and fourth, and the interplay and low cross for that early Salah chance to his already beast-mode physicality.

And we'll give the defense its due as well. The full-backs were excellent, in both attack – Joe Gomez assist! – and defense. Lovren and Matip did as needed, which is all I'll ever ask. Karius frightened on three separate occasions and that's not great, but whatever, he got through it. But mostly, it was a team effort, with everyone quick to get back and cover, and Arsenal attackers smothered by numbers rather than individual dual wins.

A lot of focus will be what Arsenal did. What Arsenal's players did. Underperformers. Don't respect the shirt. Not passionate enough. Alexis wants out, Özil again goes missing. Sure, a lot of talent didn't do what was needed today. Zero shots on-target is pretty bad, even if none were especially good chances thanks to what Liverpool did. Midfielders, wing-backs, and attackers could and should have been quicker to close down Liverpool in the middle of the pitch, but most the worst examples of it came after Liverpool were already two up. Yes, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain switched off on Liverpool's first, and Bellerin screwed up on Liverpool's third.

I'm still far more inclined to blame the manager, who picked a side that played directly to Liverpool's strengths. Who started a 21-year-old center-back with 10 Premier League appearances against Sadio Mané, a left-back at center-back opposite Salah, a right wing-back at left-wing back, and a central midfielder at right-wing back. Who left Mustafi, Kolasinac, and Lacazette on the bench. Who played Aaron Ramsey in a two-man midfield against Liverpool's three.

And I'm far more inclined to credit Liverpool's players, in all three areas of the pitch.

26 August 2017

Liverpool v Arsenal 08.27.17

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.04.17
4-3 Liverpool (a) 08.14.16
3-3 (h) 01.13.16
0-0 (a) 08.24.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-2 Hoffenheim (h); 1-0 Palace (h); 2-1 Hoffenheim (a)
Arsenal: 0-1 Stoke (a); 4-3 Leicester (h); 1-1 Chelsea aet [4-1 pens] (n)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 2; Firmino, Salah 1
Arsenal: Giroud, Lacazette, Ramsey, Welbeck 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

As before Hoffenheim, as against Palace, the starting XI calculus is totally dependent upon players' fitness and potential need for rotation.

Five outfield players have started all four matches – in an 11-day span – so far: Firmino, Mané, Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Matip. This would make five matches in 15 days. The other five outfield players in the above guess at an XI have started three of the four.

That's a lot of match time for it yet to be September. That always makes me nervous.

Both Alexander-Arnold and Emre Can had minor problems against Hoffenheim, but both should be available here.

There seems a small chance we get an XI closer to that against Palace: Sturridge in place of Mané or Salah; Milner for Wijnaldum or Can; Robertson for Moreno. That left-back spot remains the most contentious, with Moreno playing better than expected but Robertson also starring against Palace last week.

That we're coming up on an international break after this match also matters. Screw it. Play whomever you want. Let the countries deal with the fallout. What could possibly go wrong, etc etc etc.

It makes a certain amount of sense to play the same XI as against Hoffenheim. Like Hoffenheim, Arsenal will play 3-4-2-1. Like Hoffenheim, Arsenal will play a high line with wing-backs getting forward. Arsenal will leave space for Mané and Salah, Liverpool will get chances. And Arsenal will as well.

Like that Hoffenheim match, this fixture has seen a lot of goals every time these sides have met since Klopp became Liverpool manager. Liverpool have scored at least three in all three meetings. Arsenal have scored three in two of them.

Arsenal are vastly more dangerous up front than Hoffenheim are.

Alexis Sanchez is back following an abdominal injury, Koscielny's back after suspension. Neither have played yet this season, so maybe it's a reach to throw both in right away, but this is Alexis and Koscielny we're talking about. Both make Arsenal better, usually much better.

Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Bellerin, Xhaka, Elneny, Kolasinac; Sanchez, Özil; Lacazette. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain keeps his place at wing-back or moves into midfield, but that seems less likely given all the talk about rejecting a new contract and possible transfer. Ramsey's another option in midfield. Welbeck, Walcott, and Iwobi are options in attack; Giroud will almost certainly be limited to a role off the bench – which he's thrived in.

This may be the type of game where Liverpool have been at their best over the last couple of seasons, but, as always, past is not necessarily precedent. This can be a different, better Arsenal – even if they're allowing loads of shots so far this season, even if they're coming off a loss to Stoke. A different type of striker in attack, a different style of defense than Liverpool have faced when facing them. It can also be a better Liverpool, at least in attack, but attack has rarely been a problem for Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool.

All signs point to a wacky, wild 3-2, 4-3, 5-2 match. And if any other teams were involved, that'd means we're in for a dire 0-0 or 1-0. But that's not how these teams roll.

Let's hope Liverpool are on the right end of the insanity.

24 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 4-2 Hoffenheim

Previous Match Infographics: Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored.

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

The lesson, as always, is I'm an idiot.

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

I was spectacularly wrong. Spectacularly. And I couldn't be happier to be so.

It's not as if Liverpool can or will ever completely focus on defense. That's not Liverpool. Liverpool just aren't built to play that way, a couple of first-leg European performances at Dortmund and Villarreal aside. Liverpool "focusing on defense" usually means heavy pressing from the front and quick counter-attacks. And, to be fair, we did get a bit of that.

But I did not expect that show of force, that show of strength. That much of a trip to the woodshed for the first quarter of the match. Those first 24 minutes rivaled anything we've seen in the last few seasons – even The Great Arsenal Massacre of 2013-14.

In those first 24 minutes, until Hoffenheim were forced into a tactics- and formation-altering substitution, Liverpool took nine shots. Hoffenheim took none. Four of those Liverpool shots were clear-cut chances, three of those shots ended in goals.

Hoffenheim just could not breathe.

Within four minutes, Mané was through on goal thanks to Firmino's defense-slaying throughball, denied by Baumann. Within ten, Liverpool opened the scoring – another throughball from Firmino to Mané, this time holding up play before a back-heel to Can, a fortunate finish via deflection. Eight minutes after that, Wijnaldum hit the post when set up by Firmino, and poacher-in-extremis Salah's on hand for the rebound tap-in.

And then, in the 21st minute, one of the prettiest goals you'll ever see. Embedded here, because it's just that sexy. And if this embed is country-protected because Fox Sports – which at least won't get taken down because of copyright – I encourage you to Google. Now. This'll be here when you get back.

My gods. All the gods. Just watch it again, then a few times more. It's as good as team football gets.

Moreno forward into Firmino, who has dropped as a "false nine" should, then turned and makes the necessary run forward after laying off to Wijnaldum. Who delivers as perfectly-weighted a throughball as you'll see – and we'd already seen two from Firmino. Then Mané's intelligence in holding up play rather than an early low cross to a covered Salah; seriously, this is the most underrated part of the move. Then exactly the back-heel needed to release Firmino, followed by Firmino's cross with his weaker foot to the exact spot for Can to finish with his weaker foot. The entire move from start to finish, from one of the pitch to the other, took just 12 seconds.

Woof. I'm done. I'm on the floor and I have no idea where I am or where my pants are.

Incidentally, two of Liverpool's three goals so far had featured back-heels from Sadio Mané. A small matter in the greater scheme of things, but I want to note my fervent approval.

But, credit where due – and it ain't much credit – Hoffenheim steadied. Hoffenheim made a necessary and improving change: Uth for Nordtveit, attacker for defender and a switch to a 4-2-3-1. Because a high-line three center-back defense was getting absolutely shredded by Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, with Can and Wijnaldum cleverly taking up spaces vacated by retreating center-backs. A back four with deeper full-backs and central midfielders at least stemmed that tide for a while.

And it got Hoffenheim a goal back, with some help.

It feels slightly pedantic to blame an individual player for a goal conceded in a match where Liverpool often ran riot, but step forward Dejan Lovren. Wait. No. Don't step forward. Don't step forward after playing a pass directly to a Hoffenheim attacker in your defensive third, creating the angle for Wagner to feed Uth. The substitute's goal from a wide-box shot to reduce arrears, just as he did in Germany a week ago, this time less than four minutes after coming on.

That could have been tilt. Or at least a little tilt-y. We've seen Liverpool, no matter the good that came before, sink faster than the Titanic when faced with adversity after unnecessarily conceding. But that did not happen here.

Liverpool should have extended its lead even further in the 36th – Moreno cross-field to Alexander-Arnold, one-touch perfectly weighted for Salah, a low cross to Firmino with the goal dead to rights but somehow shot straight at Baumann. Not long after, Emre Can was inches away from a 42-minute hat-trick. Meanwhile, Hoffenheim remained limited to a couple more half-chances from Gnabry and Uth.

Liverpool just kept doing Liverpool. Gegenpress, then go for the throat. Sure, play the high line. Press fervently. Attack, right away, if given the slightest glimmer of a chance.

Liverpool were incorrigible. And ultimately unstoppable. The second half never saw the heights hit in the first, but Liverpool were in control of tenor and tempo if not possession. Another clear-cut chance, a couple of shots on-target well saved by Baumann – who truly prevented a massacre – and then the final nail into Hoffenheim's coffin in the 63rd minute. Henderson charging forward from deep to press Vogt into an error, then laying off for Firmino. 3-1 up, 5-3 on aggregate, with 30 minutes to play, and your deepest midfielder is doing things like that. Liverpool can really be fun sometimes.

And from there, a formality. Liverpool rarely tried to attack, taking 20 minutes from the fourth goal to even register another shot, and Liverpool were kind of, sort of punished for it with Hoffenheim's second consolation: a well-hit cross after a well-worked throw-in, but more notably Matip losing his man, leaving Lovren one versus two and Wagner first to the ball to head past Mignolet. Yes, this was a match where I was extremely happy with what Liverpool did for 97% of the time. But it was a match where Liverpool also conceded two goals mainly because their two center-backs each did something not great.

That second consolation was also enough of a wake-up call. Hoffenheim would get no closer. Hoffenheim wouldn't take another shot for the rest of the match.

Yesterday saw Liverpool's attack almost at its best. Almost. And the only reason it's "almost" is that six or seven goals wouldn't have flattered the home side.

Liverpool had six clear-cut chances. Everyone in front five had at least one. Liverpool's high last season was five, achieved twice, in the 5-1 win over Hull and 6-1 win over Watford, and Hoffenheim is neither Hull nor Watford. I've been tracking Liverpool clear-cut chances for three seasons now. This is the most I've seen in a single match. Meanwhile, Hoffenheim had none.

Liverpool put nine of 20 shots on-target. Liverpool took 17 of 20 shots inside the box. Liverpool out-shot opponents who needed a win, who needed at least two goals to get that win, by 11 shots. And that's despite (or maybe because of) Liverpool having just 45% possession.

We're four games into the season and each of Liverpool's preferred front three have scored two goals. Mo Salah's the only of the three without an assist.

There have only been four games, so "sample size" in big flashing neon letters, but this is what Liverpool's front three are doing so far:

It wasn't just the attack either. We finally got a functional Liverpool midfield too. An assist, five successful tackles, two interceptions, and 89% pass accuracy from Jordan Henderson. Three in-box shots – good chances coming after smart runs – that killer pass to start the move for Liverpool's third goal, and three key passes from Wijnaldum. Oh, and two goals from Emre Can, who was reportedly ill.

Most sides would've have done what I expected Liverpool to do. Hoffenheim needed two goals, so first and foremost make sure Hoffenheim doesn't get two goals. Well, that's not Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool.

Hoffenheim got those two goals. Liverpool got four.

This was Liverpool's game, Liverpool's match, to a T. Look up "Klopp's Liverpool" in the dictionary and you'll see this, probably the best example of what they're capable of against this type of opposition, since the 4-1 victory at Manchester City early in the manager's reign. An onslaught from the opening whistle. Press, blitz, finish. Lather, rinse, repeat. A boot, stamping on a human face – forever. Until the defense does something dumb, but at least not until Liverpool are out of sight.

If only more opponents would let Liverpool approach matches similarly.

However, as noted by someone smarter than I on Twitter (stupid private accounts and pseudonyms make it hard to credit), Liverpool are a Wijnaldum error and blown offside call (on the same injury-time play) from a perfect start to the season. It should be two wins from two in the league, and is two wins from two in the Champions League qualifiers. Despite all the issues we've repeatedly mentioned in previous matches. Despite Coutinho, Lallana, and Clyne yet to play a single minute so far.

Despite Liverpool being capable of much more than we've seen so far. But yesterday was as close a glimpse as we've gotten yet.

22 August 2017

Liverpool v Hoffenheim 08.23.17

Liverpool lead 2-1 on aggregate

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

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

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

Referee: Daniele Orsato (ITA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace

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

Match data from WhoScored and Liverpool FC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Might as well break out the passing wheel again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 August 2017

Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace

Mané 73'

Just enough is good enough.

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

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

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

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

But Liverpool finally scored.

But Liverpool never conceded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 August 2017

Liverpool v Crystal Palace 08.19.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

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

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

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

Referee: Kevin Friend (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Hoffenheim

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long may this continue, Trent.

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

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

14 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-3 Watford

Match data from WhoScored and Squawka.

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

I feel as if I've written this before.

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

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

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

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

But there are a couple of differences worth mentioning.

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

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

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

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

I will, however, complain about one more thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 August 2017

Liverpool 3-3 Watford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 August 2017

Liverpool at Watford 08.12.17

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

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

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

Referee: Anthony Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

This bodes ominously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 August 2017

Liverpool Season Preview 2017-18

Liverpool should be entering this season on a high.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone Loves Transfer Windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squad Depth

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's not the best sign.

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

Liverpool played 47 matches last season.

Formation and First-Choice XI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yeah, there are other teams too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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