17 November 2017

Liverpool v Southampton 11.18.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Gold (uggggggh)

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 05.07.17
0-1 Southampton (h; League Cup) 01.25.17
0-1 Southampton (a; League Cup) 01.11.17
0-0 (a) 11.19.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 West Ham (a); 3-0 Maribor (h); 3-0 Huddersfield (h)
Southampton: 0-1 Burnley (h); 1-1 Brighton (a); 1-0 West Brom (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 7; Firmino, Mané 3; Coutinho, Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Southampton: Gabbiadini 3; Davis 2; Austin, Boufal, Tadic, Yoshida 1

Referee: Mike Jones (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Gomez Matip Lovren Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Coutinho

Does... does Liverpool have an almost fully fit squad? And right after an international break?

Coutinho should be fit enough to start, having featured in Brazil's internationals. Mané will be checked on today, leaving early from the Senegal squad after the first match but with Liverpool seemingly not very worried. And Adam Lallana is available, for the first time this season.

It is a strange feeling. And I'm unsure how Liverpool will line up with almost everyone available. It's not something we've had to contemplate that often.

We can rule out Lallana starting, at least for another week or so – this ain't gonna be a "Mané will only play 20 minutes" thing. We can also probably rule out the 4-4-2 we saw before the break against West Ham; I wouldn't entirely dismiss the idea but it's probably hard to shoehorn everyone into that formation with Coutinho and Henderson back in the fold; Coutinho especially doesn't seem to have a place in that system. Whether Mané's fit decides the front three – either Coutinho plays there if he's not, or Coutinho plays in midfield with one of Henderson, Can, or Wijnaldum making way. And once Lallana returns, your guess is as good as mine. I can absolutely see Lallana in the role Oxlade-Chamberlain played at West Ham.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, don't get too shouty if Lovren returns in place of Klavan. He's usually preferred, no matter his greater propensity for massive hilarious errors, although that this match is against his old club may give Klopp a few more reservations. And given Southampton's complete lack of attacking desire in both league fixtures last season, I wouldn't be surprised to see Alexander-Arnold at right-back rather than Gomez, even if I'm wary of how the "ONE FULLBACK SITS. ALWAYS SITS." works with Trent rather than Joe.

As for the opposition. Southampton have been definitively mid-table so far this season. 13th in the league, only two points behind eighth but only four ahead of 17th. And while they've underperformed relative to last season, they're still very Southampton: 15th in goals scored but 7th in goals conceded, having let in six fewer goals than Liverpool.

Only Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Swansea, and Huddersfield have scored less than Southampton. Southampton have scored more than once in just one of the last nine league matches, in a 2-2 draw against Newcastle a month ago. But Southampton are getting shots; only Liverpool, City, Tottenham, and Arsenal average more per game. And they're not bad shots – Southampton are almost exactly league average in xG and take almost 60% of their shots from inside the box.

Four clean sheets in Liverpool's last six matches not withstanding, facing a side that probably should be scoring more than it has seems troublesome. Especially when Liverpool are winless against said side in their last five meetings, failing to score in each of last season's four. Liverpool had a combined 32 shots in the two league matches last season. Southampton had seven. Both matches ended 0-0.

And Southampton's XI will be a lot like that faced last season. Forster; Cedric, Hoedt, van Dijk, Bertrand; Romeu, Davis; Tadic, Boufal, Redmond; Gabbiadini. Maybe Yoshida rather than Hoedt at center-back; maybe James Ward-Prowse or Højbjerg in midfield rather than Boufal or Tadic, with Davis pushed further forward. Shane Long and Charlie Austin are likely substitutes off the bench, especially if Southampton are chasing the game. Their most notable summer signing, midfielder Mario Lemina, is out injured.

Liverpool are three games unbeaten, scoring at least three in all three. If we ignore the Tottenham match – let's all agree to ignore the Tottenham match – they've conceded just once in those last five games. And Liverpool, after an absolutely awful September trickling into October, are up to fifth, just four points off second.

The squad's almost fully fit. There are no more international breaks until March. Liverpool are slowly climbing the table in the league and are in first place in their Champions League group. It's time to go. And it starts against Liverpool's feeder squad, who Liverpool have they struggled against for more than a season.

Go.

06 November 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 4-1 West Ham

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

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



This was only the fifth time we've seen a starting Liverpool formation that wasn't 4-3-3 since the beginning of 2016-17. 4-Diamond-2 in the 1-1 at Manchester United, 4-0 at West Ham, and 3-0 v Boro last season; 3-5-1-1 in the 2-1 at Stoke with an unbelievably rotated side. And 60 matches with a Liverpool XI in a 4-3-3.

We changed the system and yesterday was the first time we did it, 4-4-2, which looked maybe from the beginning like a very offensive line-up, we had a different idea - we wanted to defend deeper, more compact and using the space which we had for the counter-attacks. We will never know how it would have been if we don’t score the first one, I think it was kind of an open game up until then. We had to get used to it a little bit, it was difficult for the boys to wait a little bit more for the challenge than jump always. – Jürgen Klopp

There have been only five matches this season where Liverpool had less possession than they did on Saturday: 2-2 at Sevilla, much more a cagey European tie; 0-5 at Manchester City, thanks to the red card; 4-0 v Arsenal, where Liverpool were three-up by the 57th minute and sat deep and soaked up for the final 30 minutes; and both legs against Hoffenheim, which played out similarly to the match against Arsenal.

The last time Liverpool had 52% possession or less against a non-Top 6, non-European, or non-Everton opponent was 2-1 at Bournemouth in April 2016, a soak-up and counter 4-2-3-1 that had been heavily rotated after Liverpool's unfathomable midweek victory over Dortmund.

We're all well aware that Liverpool have struggled to break down the league's lesser lights far too often, both this season and last. And with West Ham set up in a 3-4-3 with restricted wing-backs and players like Chicharito and Lanzini who thrive on the counter, that seemed more than possible on Saturday had Liverpool started with its usual formation. Outside of the Manchester City loss, the vast majority of Liverpool's goals conceded have come on set plays, counter-attacks, and defensive errors. Saturday's system did well to limit the potential for the first two, Liverpool's players mostly did well to limit the third.

It was a welcomed change to see Klopp willing to adjust tactics and formation based on what was likely to work against certain opposition. Too often it's felt like, "This is what we've done when we've been at our best, even if sometimes it doesn't succeed. Roll the ball out and we'll find a way," even I know that's not necessarily the case.

So, yes, it took time for Liverpool to get going. Unfamiliar XI, unusual formation, one which didn't have a lot of time to come together on the training pitch this week. But given the one opportunity that Liverpool had been waiting for, playing for with a quarter of the match gone, Liverpool slit throats. Mo Salah and Sadio Mané slit throats, because that's what Mo Salah and Sadio Mané do.

While Klopp's obviously correct in saying that it was a more defensive formation, it was also a formation that got the best out of the attackers that Liverpool were able to put on the pitch. Salah, further forward rather than needing to track back on the right since Liverpool kept the fullbacks relatively deep; Oxlade-Chamberlain's work-rate was far more helpful in that position. Given more central support, Firmino could press with more intensity – he made six successful tackles, by far the most from a Liverpool player and only four fewer than the entire West Ham team – and take up deeper positions to better effect – look at what he did for Liverpool's third goal, getting the ball just past the halfway line not long after Liverpool kicked off, then driving past two West Ham defenders through their entire half of the pitch. Mané created two assists for Salah on counter-attacks, running through West Ham's half before finding Salah with the perfectly timed and weighted pass.

There were only 15 Liverpool shots, with the majority coming after Liverpool scored their third. There were only three first-half shots, joint-fewest in a Liverpool first half this season along with the opening day match at Watford.

But Liverpool's shots were almost all high-value shots. Liverpool's xG per shot was around 0.17, the second-highest for the season behind the romp over Arsenal. Liverpool had more clear-cut chances than they had shots from outside the box.

It wasn't just Liverpool, though. Six of the ten shots in the first hour of the match were clear-cut chances: three of Liverpool's six shots, three of West Ham's four shots. And two of the Liverpool shots that weren't could have been as such: Firmino's second-minute close-range effort and Oxlade-Chamberlain's first before his scoring rebound.

For all the delight that Liverpool's change in formation helped Liverpool do better in match which have caused so many issues, this was the main difference in the match. Liverpool scored its three clear-cut chances in that first hour. West Ham scored one of their three, and only after Liverpool already had two goals.

To be fairer to Liverpool, one of those West Ham chances came very early and West Ham were lucky it did. Lanzini's two came during the why-is-this-match-so-open spell in the 15 minutes after halftime, as West Ham changed to a 4-4-2 and Liverpool already had a two-goal lead. During the period in-between, where Liverpool played their way into the game and established that necessary lead, West Ham had nothing. Literally nothing, limited to one off-target Lanzini shot from long range in first half injury time between the 10th and 45th minutes.

Incidentally, if you ignore the Tottenham game – let's all ignore the Tottenham game! – Liverpool have held their opponents to just four shots on-target through five games. One by Manchester United, one by Maribor in each of their matches, none by Huddersfield, and one by West Ham. Five games. Four shots on-target. Four clean sheets. And just one goal conceded, that one from Lanzini. That's pretty okay.

Still, there's an excellent chance it's a very different match if Ayew converts in the ninth minute. Released by a Lanzini pass somehow deflected directly to him, rammed off the post rather than into the back of the net. That goal forces Liverpool to come out. That goal allows West Ham to sit deeper. That makes this game potentially a re-run of Spartak or Burnley, no matter the starting Liverpool formation.

But there's an excellent chance it's still the same result if Firmino converts in the second minute, barely denied by the heel of Joe Hart's trailing leg.

That's football. Put the ball in the net more than the other team. Liverpool are often good at doing that. The foundation, formation, tactics, and XI on Saturday set up Liverpool to do that more than West Ham could.

Open matches are almost always better for Liverpool than tight, compact, attack-versus-defense matches, even if they're more terrifying for us. Because chances are you're going to lose to Liverpool in an arms race. There are few teams in the world that can match Liverpool's firepower up front, and only one or two in the Premier League.

Make no mistake. West Ham aren't good. There are reasons they currently sit in the relegation zone and there are reasons why they've now fired their manager. This formation probably won't work against a lot of sides in the league. But it's another arrow in the quiver. And it worked on Saturday.

Nonetheless, Liverpool did what Liverpool needed to do, for the third consecutive match and the third consecutive match where Liverpool have won by three goals. Credit to Jürgen Klopp for making the changes that made this performance and result possible. And credit to Liverpool's players for making it happen.

04 November 2017

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham

Goals:
Salah 21' 76'
Matip 24'
Lanzini 55'
Oxlade-Chamberlain 56'

Liverpool away from home remains a roller coaster. Thankfully, this roller coaster stayed on the tracks rather than careening through a guardrail and killing everyone aboard. West Ham helped.

It begin with a tense, scrappy opening 20 minutes. A confusing Liverpool in a surprising XI, closest to a 4-2-4 with both Firmino and Salah up top, Oxlade-Chamberlain and the somehow-returning Mané on the flanks, and a two-man midfield of Wijnaldum and Can. We got an early set play chance, Hart saving Firmino from close-range with his back heel, but not much more. An unfamiliar XI and formation taking time to coalesce is no real surprise.

That disjointed Liverpool mostly held West Ham at bay, with less Liverpool possession than usual but only one real West Ham chance. Still, one good chance: Lanzini's throughball deflected directly to an onside Ayew, his shot off the post with Mignolet making himself big. So far, West Ham aren't bad, Liverpool aren't great. This one could go either way.

And then, a West Ham corner. And then, a goal. A Liverpool goal. Matip heads clear, Salah and Mané fly up the pitch, Mané feeds Salah, Salah scores. Meep meep. I think they left scorch-marks down the center of the London Stadium pitch.

And West Ham fall apart. Liverpool score a second almost immediately, Salah's corner ricocheted on goal by Noble, saved, but Matip with the rebound. West Ham do literally nothing for the rest of the half, although Liverpool remain a bit out of sorts and nowhere near as threatening as you'd hope. But Liverpool are still Liverpool, and 2-0 remains the most dangerous lead in sports™.

West Ham were always going to be at least a bit better after halftime, especially when throwing on Andy Carroll to give Liverpool something different to worry about. A switch to 4-4-2 more closely matches Liverpool's formation and gives Liverpool's fullbacks a lot more to deal with. And it takes ten minutes for West Ham to pull one back: a cross-field pass to Lanzini at the back post, shrugging off Gomez too easily but also beautiful control and finish.

Uh oh.

But then West Ham went and West Hammed again. Within a minute, Liverpool restored its two-goal lead: Firmino controlling Moreno's pass, jamming through the defense, finding Oxlade-Chamberlain, his first shot saved, his second under Hart.

It's literally less than a minute. We missed almost the entire move because they're still showing replays of Lanzini's goal. Well done, West Ham. And we're done here.

As at Leicester, Liverpool made us worried. Liverpool threatened to throw away a two-goal lead, but ultimately didn't. Liverpool looked okay, then good, then frightening, then good again. Liverpool never conceded a second, as against Leicester. Liverpool added even more gloss than against Leicester with a fourth on the break: Salah's second goal, Mané's second assist. Liverpool could have added still more.

It was better than against Leicester. It was less frightening and less dumb than against Leicester. That's progress? Also, West Ham are worse than Leicester.

So, yeah, it's annoying that two goals never seems enough away from home, even if it would have been today. It remains confusing that Liverpool didn't shut up shop until after scoring their fourth, leaving an exposed midfield and defense despite all we've seen before. End to end, drunk and dumb, for the first half-hour of the second half. Four of West Ham's six shots came between the 55th and 69th minutes: all four in the Danger Zone, two clear-cut chances for Lanzini, two close-range headers from Chicharito. We didn't see a Liverpool substitution until after the fourth goal, when Milner finally came on to give Liverpool a three-man midfield. Coincidentally, West Ham didn't have another shot for the rest of the match.

Still. For all of the heartburn we've had, Liverpool have now won each of its last three games by a three-goal margin. The last time that happened was March 2014. Liverpool have won its last three games, full stop.

Liverpool have been patient, diligent, and secure at home in two of those last three matches. Liverpool were wild today, in all three area of the pitch, but ultimately throughly deserved winners. Salah's now got 12 goals through 17 starts, Oxlade-Chamberlain has two goals in his last five games, and don't look now but Sadio Mané's back.

It wasn't comfortable, because that's not Liverpool, but – for the third game in a row – Liverpool did what Liverpool needed to do. Tottenham aside, it's been a perfectly cromulent month of football since returning from the last international break.

And now we've got another international break. Then we start again.

03 November 2017

Liverpool at West Ham 11.04.17

1:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (a) 05.14.17
2-2 (h) 12.11.16
1-2 West Ham (a; FA Cup) 02.09.16
0-0 (h; FA Cup) 01.30.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Maribor (h); 3-0 Huddersfield (h); 1-4 Tottenham (a)
West Ham: 2-2 Palace (a); 3-2 Tottenham (a); 0-3 Brighton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 5; Firmino, Mané 3; Coutinho, Sturridge 2; Henderson, WIjnaldum 1
West Ham: Chicharito 4; Ayew 2; Antonio, Kouyate, Obiang, Sakho 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Gomez Matip Klavan Moreno
Milner Henderson Can
Salah Sturridge Firmino

Coutinho's still out, while Lovren and Wijnaldum are close but also probably out. Amazingly, Sadio Mané might be able to get a 20-25 minute run-out as a substitute. I think we'd all enjoy that.

Mignolet will come back in for Karius, Gomez will probably come back in for Alexander-Arnold, Sturridge will probably come back in for Oxlade-Chamberlain. But it's gonna look a lot like the XIs which beat Huddersfield and Maribor 3-0.

It hasn't been Liverpool's strongest XI. We haven't seen Liverpool's best performances. But we've seen consistency. We've seen a lot more good than bad. We've seen wins.

It's been more than welcomed. But I can't help thinking that we've seen this good at Anfield, and we've rarely seen it away from Anfield this season.

Yes, sample size. Yes, quality of opposition: 5th, 20th, 7th, 2nd, and 13th at home versus 8th, 1st, 11th, 9th, 3rd away. But also this.



Eek.

So, yeah, if we're really seeing consistency and improvement, we could do with some better Liverpool performances away from Anfield. And it starts tomorrow.

Meanwhile, if you know which West Ham we'll get tomorrow, I'd love to know. Liverpool would love to know. We gonna see the West Ham that's won just one of its last six league games? Or we gonna see the West Ham that scored three goals in the second half to come back to win the League Cup tie at Tottenham last week? The West Ham which scored twice in the first half at Crystal Palace or the West Ham which conceded twice in the second half at Crystal Palace?

The West Ham that almost always raises its game against Liverpool, with a manager who loves beating Liverpool, or the West Ham that got smoked by Liverpool in the penultimate match last season?

Whichever West Ham it is, it'll be a West Ham missing at least four potential starters, if not six. Antonio, Collins, and Byram are definitely out injured, Zabaleta's suspended, and both Fonte and Reid are doubtful. Five of those six players are defenders.

It sounds as if Fonte's more likely than Reid, so let's guess Hart; Fonte, Kouyate, Ogbonna; Fernandes, Obiang, Noble, Lanzini, Cresswell; Ayew, Carroll.

There are still good players in that XI. West Ham will play three at the back, which will look like five at the back an awful lot. West Ham will try to frustrate, then West Ham will try to counter and set play. It's gonna be one of those games. We've seen a lot of those games. And we'll keep seeing them until Liverpool consistently do better in them, the last two matches notwithstanding.

And it will be one of those games with Andy Carroll likely to start up front. You remember Andy Carroll. He's good at winning headers on long balls from defense to set up counter-attacks. He's really good at heading crosses from both open play and set play. He hasn't yet scored a league goal this season, and I suspect he'd really enjoy scoring against Liverpool. Or maybe Chicarito plays instead, a player who presents an entirely different set of counter-attacking problems which Liverpool have been vulnerable against.

16th place and ostensibly struggling, but there are concerns about this West Ham side. Up front, in midfield, and at the back.

It'll be up to Liverpool to keep doing whatever they've been doing in the last two games. And, this time, to do it away from home.

02 November 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Maribor

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

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the LiverpoolFC.com app.



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

That was almost – almost – more satisfying than strolling 7-0 at Maribor.

Are two matches enough for a trend? Do two swallows make a summer?

0-0 at half time, 3-0 at full time. Against a deep, deep, deep defense. At Anfield. Despite a missed penalty.

It really was Huddersfield all over again. But better, against deeper.

More shots, better shots. Four clear-cut chances, as against Huddersfield, but a higher percentage of Danger Zone shots and a higher Expected Goals total. More possession. Somehow out-tacking and out-intercepting Maribor despite having 75% possession, with ten of 19 tackles and four of ten interceptions in Maribor's half. Better goals. Liverpool didn't require an opposition error to open the scoring, but won the ball back in Maribor's half, sustained possession, and saw both an well-taken cross and finish. Liverpool's second was one of the better goals they've scored this season, and the exact type of move needed to break through 11 defenders: quick passing finished with a wonderful one-two through the heart of the defense, excellently taken by Emre Can. Even the penalty was better won and better taken, even if it ended in the same result.

There were more Maribor shots than Huddersfield shots, but it's hard to have fewer than one, and Maribor's five chances had about the same chance of going in as Huddersfield's one. Liverpool have now allowed one – one! – shot on-target in the last two matches, and that one shot on-target was about as routine as save as possible, low, central and from about 30 yards out.

The massacre in the last meeting forced Maribor to change tactics, formation, and style. Five at the back for the first time this season. An average position which saw all 11 starters in Maribor's half of the pitch.

And it took time for Liverpool to break through, as against Huddersfield. That happens when there are 11 opposition players in one half of the pitch. That happens when Liverpool make two changes to the front six, and need to make a substitution within 17 minutes. And it's frustrating. But it's not the end of the world. It's hard for us to remember there are 90 minutes in a football match, especially when Liverpool's best matches have seen Liverpool at their best from the opening whistle.

And despite that first half frustration, Liverpool score within five minutes of the restart. And Liverpool finish 3-0 winners. Mohamed Salah scores his 10th goal in his 16th start. Emre Can scores his third Champions League goal in his sixth Champions League match this season; he had five goals through all of last season. Liverpool's fullbacks both contribute assists. James Milner creates the most Liverpool chances and tallies an assist in consecutive matches, Daniel Sturridge scores in consecutive matches – something he hasn't done since April 2016. And with two games to play, Liverpool sit top of the group. Liverpool need one win from their last two games to assure qualification to the Champions League knockout rounds, a place they haven't been since 2008.

Six points from six in the last two games, against the type of sides who've frustrated Liverpool in the past two seasons. The sides who have been happy to sit deep and wait for Liverpool to fall apart, either up front or at the back. Or sometimes both. And Liverpool haven't done either.

Two swallows may not make a summer, but it's an awful lot better, and an awful lot more encouraging, than what came before.