13 February 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham


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

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.




These are the matches where Liverpool perform.

Everyone's seen and written about Liverpool's top-six record under Klopp, both this season and last. Once again, one of these matches saw fewer than 500 attempted Liverpool passes, fewer than 400 completed Liverpool passes, less than 56% Liverpool possession. Liverpool have now won five and drawn two when that happens. 4-3 Arsenal, 1-1 Tottenham, 2-1 Chelsea, 4-2 Palace, 1-0 City, 1-1 United, and 2-0 Tottenham.

They're either open, back-and-forth games (Arsenal on opening day, but I also see you, Palace outlier) or games where Liverpool score early and can actually focus on defending – and they're often good at defending when actually focused on defending.

Credit to Tottenham for the confidence to play their style no matter Liverpool's form against a different sort of set-up lately, even sticking with the back four they've recently used because of injuries rather than a more smothering back three which has been deployed in most matches against better sides.

It was still a bad idea.

You should not try to play out from the back against this Liverpool. You should not allow this Liverpool front five to press you, especially in the middle third of the pitch. And you should not play an insanely compact high-line defense against this Liverpool.

All three of those facets heavily featured in Liverpool's goals. Liverpool win possession in the middle third. Liverpool sprint at and behind your defense. And Liverpool score. Most notably, that high line was straight suicide against Sadio Mané.



Poor Ben Davies. Another view:



A Liverpool attacker hasn't seen that much space to run into since Hillary Clinton seemed certain to be the next US President.

And that set the tone. We could have gotten similar earlier, with last-ditch defending from Alderweireld and Walker preventing Liverpool from getting in, and we did get similar less than two minutes later.



Admittedly, Liverpool are very much helped by Dier's mis-control and error on the ball. But as Liverpool can attest, one bad moment of defending and conceding often leads to more mistakes and more goals. As it did here. As it almost did four minutes later thanks to Kyle Walker's nonsense cross-field ball in his own half, with Mane only denied by Lloris' inner-thigh save. As it almost did two minutes after that, Tottenham thrice failing to fully clear a corner before Lloris again denied Mané.

There's a reason most sides stopped playing like this against Liverpool around three months ago.

But, yes, while Liverpool are often better against the best sides in the league and Liverpool are better against this sort of set-up, this was no routine Against-Top-Six performance. This was no routine Liverpool v Tottenham performance.



These are the four league matches where Klopp's Liverpool has faced Pochettino's Tottenham, an updated version of a chart posted the last time these two sides met. A match where Liverpool played better than they had in previous against Spurs. A narrow match, but one that Liverpool probably should have won had Liverpool finished their first-half chances.

This, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as close. Liverpool got their very-much-needed early goals – "goals" not "goal" – could and should have scored more if not for Lloris, and only had one moment of fright where Mignolet outstandingly denied Son in the 26th minute. From there, Tottenham never ever ever looked like scoring, held to just two shots for the final 55 minutes of the match: an Alderweireld set play header immediately blocked and an Alderweireld 35-yard-blast that was nowhere near the target, in the 69th and 92nd minutes respectively. Despite the deficit, despite an awful lot more Tottenham possession.

Again, when compact, when set, when focused on protecting a lead rather than adding to it, Liverpool's defense can be very good. In complete contrast to when it's very much not as Liverpool are chasing a goal or a deficit.

This was the first time all season that Tottenham have been both held scoreless and their opponents scored more than once. And they'd only been held scoreless in five of 35 matches in all competitions: 0-0, 0-1 Leverkusen in the Champions League; 0-0 Bournemouth (a); 0-1 United (a); 0-0 Sunderland (a).

Also,

Finally, it seems worth a mention that Harry Kane again failed to take a shot or create a chance. As also happened when these sides met at Tottenham in August. The only other match where that's happened was Tottenham's 2-0 win over Chelsea last month. Kane had averaged 4.0 shots and 2.33 key passes per games, with two goals and one assist, in his three previous against Liverpool.

But again, these aren't necessarily the matches where we need to see Liverpool do Liverpool. It's always welcomed, and further proof that Liverpool are on the right track and have good ideas and good players. But these still aren't the droids we're looking for.



*gulps, tugs collar*

I will specifically point to the opposition's shot accuracy and clear-cut chance totals. And also note that four matches which came much earlier in the season – 4-1 Leicester, 4-2 Palace, 5-1 Hull, 6-1 Watford – make Liverpool's "bottom 10" numbers look an awful lot better than they've been lately.

Seven of Liverpool's final 13 games are against bottom ten sides – five at home, two away – with only three left against the strongest top-seven: Arsenal (h), City (a), Everton (h).

If Liverpool are to succeed in their aims this season, it'll be against those sides. And it starts in Liverpool's next match.

11 February 2017

Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham

Goals:
Mané 16' 18'

That was exactly what we wanted to see. What we needed to see. Finally, a first league win in 2017, a first clean sheet against someone other than Plymouth Argyle. And with 16 days until Liverpool's next match, we needed this for our sanity. More importantly, Liverpool's players needed it for their confidence.

But it also ain't where Liverpool's problems lie.

Liverpool are good in matches against the rest of the top six, still unbeaten this season, and unlucky not to get wins against Chelsea or United in the last few weeks. Liverpool are even better in matches against top six sides who want to play out from the back and play a high defensive line. There's a reason most sides don't do that against Liverpool, no matter Liverpool's form.

Both goals came early in the first half, before Liverpool could get frustrated or the opposition could create chances. Both goals came from pressing Tottenham players into giveaways in the middle third. Both goals saw acres of space for Liverpool players to run into. And yes, both Liverpool goals came from Sadio Mané, a player that Liverpool desperately missed over the last month.

For the first, Lallana and Firmino steal in against Tottenham players to set up Wijnaldum's outstanding throughball for Mané, in behind the often-beaten back-up Ben Davies, his shot perfectly placed over Lloris. Two minutes later, Mané robs a dallying Dier and races on goal before centering to Lallana. His shot's saved. Firmino's rebound's saved. Mané's rebound isn't – three high-value chances because a defense is disjointed and out-of-position, because an attacker's stolen possession high up the pitch.

Two quick fire goals, setting the tone in the 16th and 18th minutes in front of a roaring Anfield. This is the timeframe where Liverpool blew sides away earlier in the season – the blitzkriegs we saw against Leicester, Hull, Palace, and Watford. Liverpool actually taking advantage of their frequent fast starts.


And Mané had two chances for a hat-trick within the next five minutes: first, Walker pressed into an insane cross-field back pass which Mané picked up ahead of Davies, then a hammered effort from wide in the box after Tottenham failed to fully clear a corner, both efforts well-saved by Lloris.

Liverpool were on-fire. So, of course, Tottenham nearly got back into the game immediately after, their first real attack since Liverpool's opener, Son wonderfully denied by Mignolet when put in behind by Davies' throughball. It only takes one moment. Mignolet made sure the moment stayed with Liverpool. Even in results which end as throughly as this ended, there are very fine margins. Liverpool have been on the wrong end of those margins lately.

From there, strangulation. The side of Liverpool we so rarely see, but one they've previously proven capable of, most recently against City before this 2017 freefall. A couple of Liverpool chances – Matip shouldering a set play header at Lloris, Coutinho pulling his shot wide on a counter-attack – but nothing like that first-half flurry. Because Liverpool didn't need it.

They needed to play defense. And did. Tottenham took just two shots after the 35th minute: Alderweireld's 69th-minute set play header which was immediately blocked and Alderweireld's 92nd-minute blast from absolutely nowhere that was nowhere close to Liverpool's goal. Despite a two-goal deficit against a top-four competitor in a race that's going down to the barest of wires. Despite changing the formation at halftime, switching to a diamond midfield. Despite having players like Kane, Alli, Eriksen, Son, Dembele, etc.

This is just the fourth time Tottenham have been held scoreless in a league match this season. 0-0 at Bournemouth, 0-1 at United, and 0-0 at Sunderland. Liverpool are the only side to not only keep a clean sheet against Tottenham but also score more than once.

Do not misunderstand me. Any win is an awesome win given the last month and Liverpool did a lot of things very well, in every phase of play. Players who've struggled, players we've scapegoated. Mignolet's wonderful save and strong claims on a couple of Tottenham set plays. Lucas of all people pocketing Harry Kane of all people. Firmino, who's had an awful month, absolutely everywhere – leading the press, holding up play, winning aerial duels, creating chances, charging opponents down in the 92nd minute when already ahead by two goals.

This was a vital, necessary step. An exhilarating, wonderful, welcomed win. But, yes, it also doesn't answer our concerns against the Swanseas and Hulls of the world.

Liverpool will have the chance to do just that in their next match. Away, against a relegation-threatened side in horrific form, who love to sit deep and counter, who also happen to be defending champions.

This nightmare run is over. And this test is over. On to the next.

10 February 2017

Liverpool v Tottenham 02.11.17

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 08.27.16
1-1 (h) 04.02.16
0-0 (a) 10.17.15
3-2 Liverpool (h) 02.10.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Hull (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 1-2 Wolves (h)
Tottenham: 1-0 Boro (h); 0-0 Sunderland (a); 4-3 Wycombe (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 9; Firmino 8; Lallana 7; Milner 6; Coutinho 5; Origi 4; Can, Wijnaldum 3; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Tottenham: Kane 14; Alli 11; Son 7; Eriksen 5; Rose, Wanyama 2; Janssen, Lamela, Winks 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

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

2017 rolls on apace. Still winless in the league. Still with just the narrow 1-0 win over Plymouth Argyle. A new nadir achieved with last week's 0-2 loss against a relegation-zone side that Liverpool had beaten 5-1 earlier in the season.

What fresh hell will tomorrow bring? Come at me, annus horribilis.

At least Liverpool are facing someone good? The sides that Liverpool "expect" to beat have been the biggest let-downs of late – the Swanseas, the Hulls. Even during this winter of our discontent, Liverpool remain decent against their top six brethren, with 1-1 draws against both United and Chelsea, matches that Liverpool arguably should have won.

And now they're facing an in-form funhouse mirror. Pochettino's press against Klopp. The fittest, hardest-running sides in the league. A opponent that doesn't score as much as Liverpool – at least, Liverpool before all the evil set in – but one who defends immeasurably better, even if their keeper's got an error or two in him as well. It's all led to these two sides canceling each other out in recent meetings.

At least Liverpool are on a week's rest – for the first time in 2017 – with almost everyone back and available. There are only a couple of minor injury concerns. First, whether Lovren and Klavan will be available after missing Hull. The former has a knee issue and hasn't really trained. The latter was in bed almost all week with illness and only returned yesterday. So Klavan at least has a chance of being available, but there's a better chance it'll be Lucas again. I see you in the back shouting "GOMEZ!!!!!" stop that.

The other concern's in midfield with Lallana doubtful, but I'm guessing is still likely to play because Lallana. And if he is available, we're back to the usual question in midfield: Can or Wijnaldum? Last Saturday saw one of those games where everyone's happy to scream about Emre Can for reasons, even if others are as bad or worse. No matter how annoying his and everyone's performance was, I'm not sure Wijnaldum would've made that much of a difference. But tomorrow's match is at Anfield – the Wijnaldum At Home theory remains valid – and Liverpool will have less of the ball and more reliance on the counter-attack, so Wijnaldum is a bit more likely to get the spot than he was at Hull. But still, probably Can.

There are also rumors that Karius might start ahead of Mignolet after the latter's most recent punishing error but whatever. Each has had good games and bad, each has saved and cost Liverpool points, each is capable of both the sublime and ridiculous in a matter of moments. Karius remains the long-term future – at least the more likely option for it – but I'm fine with trying to ride out Mignolet a little longer.

Meanwhile, Tottenham. The second-most in-form team behind a monstrous Chelsea. Four points ahead of Liverpool. Unbeaten in 11 in all competitions, with nine wins and two draws, including the only league victory over Chelsea since September. Five clean sheets in the last six league matches. However, those two draws came in Tottenham's last two away games: 2-2 at Manchester City and 0-0 at Sunderland.

Tottenham's XI remains fairly easy to predict. Lloris; Walker, Dier, Alderweireld, Davies; Wanyama, Dembele; Eriksen, Alli, Son; Kane. Maybe Cameron Carter-Vickers or Wimmer starts in defense rather than Dier, or Tottenham revert to three-at-the-back, something they've not often done since Vertonghen's injury. Rose and Lamela will also miss out through injury. The last two matches (0-0 at Sunderland and 1-0 against Boro) aside, Kane and Alli have been scoring for fun, Son Heung-Min's chipping in as well, Eriksen's perpetually dangerous from set plays (yes, yes, Liverpool defending set plays). And Tottenham can defend. Oh can Tottenham defend. Even with two crucial starters absent.

Hopefully, precedent will be something of a predictor. Liverpool are unbeaten in their last nine against Tottenham, going back to November 2012. Liverpool haven't lost at home to Tottenham since May 2011. Since Klopp took over, there have been three league draws – 0-0, 1-1, and 1-1 – and a 2-1 League Cup win back in October.

A draw is the minimum required tomorrow. The absolute, barest, "well, at least it wasn't..." minimum.

Liverpool need wins. I cannot stress the word "need" enough. It's possible this will be Liverpool's last match in February; next weekend's an FA Cup round, and if Leicester are held to a replay, the match against Liverpool on February 27 will be postponed.

After the last month, Liverpool are now fifth, only one point and goal difference off fourth but only one point and goal difference ahead of sixth. There will be fewer and fewer chances to stop this terminal velocity free-fall. Liverpool need to take every single chance they can get.

06 February 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 0-2 Hull City


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

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.



So here we are again.

Liverpool's fifth loss in 2017 in all competitions, from ten matches. Still winless in the league over the last month with two losses and three draws. Still with just one win in all competitions, the second string eking out a 1-0 at Plymouth Argyle.

The opposition bars the door and waits for Liverpool to get frustrated and then for Liverpool to crumble, whether on set play or counter-attack. It's happened in four of the last five matches. Swansea. Southampton at home in the League Cup, albeit not until the 90th minute. Wolves, although they got their set play in the first minute of the match. And now Hull.

If (and I'm so tempted to write "when" instead) Liverpool fail to make the Top 4, this is why.


"Beat the dross, win the league."

It's become too easy. There were signs of these problems earlier in the season – at Burnley, Southampton in the league, United at Anfield, Sunderland at Anfield until very late – but not to this extent. Eight of Liverpool's last ten matches in all competitions in 2017 have all but gone this way – Sunderland, Plymouth x2, Swansea, Southampton at Anfield, Wolves, Hull, and even Chelsea. And Liverpool aren't getting any better at it. Liverpool haven't had an answer for it.

Well, the answer just hasn't worked. Because against Swansea and Hull, the answer somehow became "cross more."



Granted, those two groups of five matches are very, very different, except arguably the home win over Leicester, another side which tried to sit deep but wholly failed because defense. And we know that Liverpool are far more comfortable, and often far better, against better opposition, more often allowed to play as they prefer to play.

But it's been in more than just matches against the "good" sides. When Liverpool attempt 20 or more non-corner crosses, Liverpool's record is 3W-1D-4L. When Liverpool attempt fewer than 20, it's 10W-6D. The "20 or more" list: 0-2 Burnley (a), 2-1 Swansea (a), 2-1 West Brom (h), 2-0 Sunderland (h), 3-4 Bournemouth (a), 2-2 West Ham (h), 2-3 Swansea (h), 0-2 Hull (a). West Brom's the only side in the top half of the table – Liverpool attempted exactly 20, and Pulis is gonna Pulis wherever his team are in the table – with the other seven matches against sides currently 14th and lower.

But there are mediocre-to-bad deep-lying teams in the "fewer than 20" list: Leicester, Boro, Stoke, Palace, even the first match against Hull. But Liverpool found space against those bad teams, whether through incisive passing, quick transitions, or help from the opposition.

Liverpool haven't found any space over the last month, through both the opposition's tactics as well as Liverpool's attacking failings.

A quick note on methodology here, because I'm cheating a little bit. Short corners or free kicks which eventually get crossed and dead ball free kicks immediately crossed in (although none of the latter directly to a goal) are counted here, simply because it's a lot harder to strip those from publicly available data. But neither would change the data all that much, or the conclusions at all.

And the conclusion is that Liverpool have increasingly resorted to crosses when up against deep opposition, often those bottom-half sides that Liverpool drop points against, especially away from home and especially over the last two months. And that Liverpool aren't especially good at it.

Crossing isn't necessarily the worst strategy. It led to the winner against Manchester City. It led to three of six goals against Watford (two high crosses, one low) and two of three goals at Middlesbrough (one high, one low). It led to both goals against Swansea – both lofted – which should have been enough to get a point, if not eventually lead to all three.

But there has to be a happy medium. There has to be more than just crossing, or we get this match and this result. And Liverpool's crossing – for example, the aforementioned matches and goals against Watford and Boro – is most effective in transition. It is a hell of a lot harder, especially considering Liverpool's personnel, against a set and static defense.

Also, Liverpool's full-backs aren't helping matters.

For the most part, I truly do like Clyne and Milner. Both are valuable players – insanely reliable, almost always available, and capable of getting up and down the flanks all match long. Clyne's one of the best defensive right-backs in the league, his only failing on aerial duels because of his height, while Milner looked one of the best left-backs in the league full-stop when Liverpool were flying earlier this season.

But both have severe limitations in the attacking third.



That's a horrific final third map from Clyne, failing to create a chance or even take an improbably shot from distance, especially considering his incredibly advanced average position. Milner gets a little bit more leeway because of how high Grosicki played on the right, keeping Milner at least aware that he might have some defensive responsibilities, but it's still not good. His crosses and corners weren't good, his shots weren't clever.

I may be reactionary – I wouldn't be surprised – but Liverpool probably need different options in matches like these. Which Klopp at least seemed cognizant of, if too late, when bringing on Moreno in the final 10 minutes. Incidentally, a minute before Hull scored their second.

And then there's the other end of the pitch. Again.

Would you be surprised if I said the first goal was Mignolet's first Opta-defined defensive error leading to a goal this season? I was surprised.

But defensive errors remain a problem. Liverpool now have seven leading to a goal in the league, the second-worst total behind West Ham. Five of the seven came in matches where Liverpool dropped points: at Burnley, at Bournemouth, against West Ham, against Swansea, and at Hull – all those bad sides and bad results we keep harping upon. Liverpool have 13 defensive errors in total, behind West Ham and Swansea's 14 each.

Goalkeeping remains a problem. Both Mignolet and Karius have done some good things and some very bad things, and both are just about equal in save percentages. Both have been below average. Both have faced 14 clear-cut chances in the league, and both have saved four; the difference is the opposition missed four against Karius and just one against Mignolet.






And opposition chance quality remains a problem. A problem that's getting worse.


Liverpool have allowed three or more clear-cut chances in four league matches this season. 2-1 at Swansea (a match Liverpool should have lost but didn't because of Swansea's finishing), 3-4 at Bournemouth, 2-3 v Swansea, and 0-2 at Hull. Three of four away from home. All three sides in the bottom-half of the table, with Swansea and Hull either propping up the table or damned close to it when facing Liverpool.

And two of those four matches are Liverpool's last two losses. Frustrated in attack, then more open at the back, conceding high-quality chances and paying for it more and more.

The rot's taken hold in multiple areas. And there is no one answer. Be better in attack, and defense will be less of a concern. Look to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, transition faster and better when given the opportunity, and the attack will be better. Get better movement from the front five or six and be more dynamic in midfield so the attack can move quicker against set deep defenses. Be more secure in defense, as Liverpool are against better sides, and the attack will be less of a concern.

There will be no easy way to stop the rot. It's set in, it's seemingly evident in how every Liverpool player reacts when on the ball or facing a set-back over the last month. But Liverpool have to find a way to stop the rot. It'll help that Liverpool have almost everyone back, that Liverpool will have just one match a week for the next couple of months, but Liverpool have to take that first step forward, get a win by hook, crook, or luck.

Liverpool have to find a way to get back to their first-half-of-the-season form, no matter how hard the opposition tries to keep them from doing so.

04 February 2017

Liverpool 0-2 Hull City

Goals:
N'Diaye 44'
Niasse 84'

This sort of nonsense was supposed to end when January ended. I guess it's fitting that Groundhog's Day was two days ago. "Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties 'cause it's cold outside."

It is the same thing over and over and over and over and over.

Liverpool have all the possession, but struggle to get any good chances, or really any shots at all, as the opposition sits incredibly deep and clogs the middle. Liverpool eventually do something stupid on a set play; this time, Mignolet fails to claim the second ball and N'Diaye has a tap-in. Then we get more 'Liverpool have all the possession but struggle to etc etc etc.' Then Liverpool concede on a late counter-attack when pressing forward without regard for anything else having thrown on literally all of the attackers.

Mané, Firmino, Coutinho, and Lallana all back in attack was supposed to solve everything. It ain't gonna to be that easy. Not with the road map every side since Sunderland has given Liverpool's opponents, and every subsequent opponent's pretty much stuck to. Mané did help, but Firmino was quiet and Coutinho and Lallana were actively bad, especially the former, who's looked a transparent shadow of himself since returning from injury. Meanwhile, the Hull XI has five players signed in the January window, including two of the back four and including both goal-scorers, and look a vastly more cohesive side.

There's no point doing a blow-by-blow. You've seen this match before.

22 Liverpool shots, but half of them blocked and only five on-target. All five on-target coming after Hull opened the scoring. Hull only had seven shots in total, but I suspect we'll see fairly similar expected goals total for each side. 45 Liverpool crosses, with only two directly leading to a shot: a Matip free header wide and Mané's header saved in the 56th. 15 Liverpool corners, with only one directly leading to a shot: that aforementioned Matip effort.

Meanwhile, Hull had one corner in the entire match. And scored the decisive goal.

The attack's static; the movement and interplay which led to the most Liverpool league goals scored after 19 games is just not happening. The attack's easily bogged down, closed down, and closed off. And Liverpool seemingly have no recourse besides crosses and set plays, and they ain't very good at either.

If Liverpool stop conceding stupid set play goals and keep it at 0-0 through halftime, maybe Liverpool finally blow the door down. Hull hadn't offered much else to that point, and Liverpool's defensive mistakes certainly do not help matters. But Liverpool's defense remains Liverpool's defense; it's been this way pretty much all season, especially away to bottom-half sides. Liverpool's attack is what's fallen off a cliff. Liverpool's attack is why Liverpool are getting the results they've gotten in 2017.

2017 has now seen five games without a win in the Premier League. Three draws – against Sunderland, United, and Chelsea – and two losses, against then-20th Swansea and until-today-19th Hull. Six Liverpool goals scored in total (only three from open play), with eight conceded. Liverpool nearly scored six in one match the last time these sides met.

Also, Liverpool haven't gone five games without a league win since Brendan Rodgers' first five league games in 2012-13.

So, sure, Hull have been a bogey side for a few seasons now, especially when at Hull. So, sure, Hull have been very good at home since Marco Silva became manager.

Liverpool are still responsible for these failings, today and for the last month.

We're only a couple of games away from this season being completely gone. Arsenal, City, United, and (to a lesser extent) Tottenham's commitment to similar banter is the only reason Liverpool haven't yet fallen out of the top four, at least until tomorrow.

We are nowhere near KLOPP OUT – anyone who goes this route is utterly bananas – but this rot simply has to stop. You've got time on the training ground. You've got almost everyone available.

Fix this. Now.

03 February 2017

Liverpool at Hull City 02.04.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
5-1 Liverpool (h) 09.24.16
0-1 Hull (a) 04.28.15
0-0 (h) 10.25.14
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 1-2 Wolves (h); 0-1 Southampton (h)
Hull: 0-0 United (a); 1-4 Fulham (a); 2-1 United (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 9; Firmino 8; Lallana 7; Milner 6; Coutinho 5; Origi 4; Can, Wijnaldum 3; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Hull: Snodgrass 7; Dawson, Hernandez 3; Diomande 2; Livermore, Maloney, Mason, Meyler 1

Referee: Lee Mason

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

Is... is Liverpool actually able to play its best XI?

Liverpool have no new injuries, for a change. Mané's been back for a few days, and should be ready to start. Clyne's apparently over his rib injury. This will be Coutinho's fifth start since returning from a six-week absence – yet to play a full 90 minutes but getting closer.

This will be a full-strength Liverpool. And it's been far too long since we could say that.

My only question is whether "full-strength" means Can or Wijnaldum joining Lallana and Henderson in midfield.

If it's Wijnaldum, we've seen the above ten outfield players twice: 1-1 at Spurs in August and 2-1 at Swansea in October. If it's Can, we've seen them three times: 2-1 v West Brom in October, 0-0 at Southampton in November, and 2-0 v Sunderland in November until Coutinho went off injured in the first half.

Five games. Out of 32 in all competitions. Unbeaten in all five, but not entirely impressive in all five either. Whether it's Can or Wijnaldum, Liverpool haven't been able to play these ten outfield players anywhere near as much as we'd like. My guess for tomorrow is Can, for height on set plays at both ends and his dynamism and because he was actually Good Emre Can against Chelsea and because the Wijnaldum's Only Good At Home theory is basically an axiom at this point.

And whether it's Can or Wijnaldum, the most crucial factor is having Liverpool's front four all together from the start for the first time since Coutinho's injury against Sunderland, the match where Liverpool's attacking form began to nosedive back to earth. Mané, Firmino, Coutinho, and Lallana. When they play well, Liverpool do well. When they don't, or one or more isn't available, Liverpool don't usually do well.

And then there's Hull. Pay absolutely no attention to the 5-1 result back in September.

19th place also seems a bit misleading. Hull have been better lately, especially since Marco Silva was appointed manager a month ago. It hasn't helped that sides around them are also picking up points at a better pace, most notably Swansea with their new manager. Remember Swansea? Two weeks ago? At least this it's-kind-of-a-run has seem Hull off the foot of the table, getting closer to the six sides 15th and lower within five points of each other. And we know Liverpool don't have the best record against teams in the relegation zone (*waves at Swansea and Sunderland).

Hull have especially improved at home, where they're unbeaten in the last four: 2-2 Everton, 2-0 Swansea (FA Cup), 3-1 Bournemouth, 2-1 United (League Cup). They've yet to win away under their new manager – which obviously doesn't count for much tomorrow – but also just turned in their best away performance in holding United to a 0-0 draw, with Jakupovic the hero in goal and nearly stealing all three points when Lazar Markovic hit the woodwork in the 86th minute.

It's not easy to guess Hull's XI given all the changes over the last two weeks. A still-newish manager. Having sold nearly half their league goals in Snodgrass and Livermore. Adding seven new players in the January window: Markovic, ex-Evertonian Niasse, Evandro, and Elabdellaoui (right-back) earlier this month; and Kamil Grosicki (winger), Alfred N'Diaye (central midfield), and Ranocchia (center-back) on deadline day. The last three of those players are yet to start for the club, although Ranocchia came on as a substitute against United.

But Hull are also missing a lot of players. Mason, Davies, Henriksen, Odubajo, and Keane are injured, while Elmohamady's still at the African Cup of Nations.

My best guess at an XI is basically that which held United on Wednesday, but with Grosicki or Diomande replacing the ineligible Markovic. Jakupovic; Meyler, Maguire, Dawson, Robertson; Grosicki, Evandro, Huddlestone, Clucas, Tymon; Niasse. But Elabdellaoui could start at right-back, shifting Meyler back into midfield, most likely in place of Evandro, or N'Diaye could be the new midfielder. Mbokani, back from the African Cup of Nations, and Hernandez, more often a substitute lately, are other options up front.

Or, now that Ranocchia's joined, Hull could return to the three-at-the-back system we often saw under Mike Phelan, also used against both Bournemouth and Chelsea before Curtis Davies' injury. Something like Jakupovic; Maguire, Dawson, Ranocchia; Elabdellaoui, Evandro, Huddlestone, Clucas, Robertson; Diomande, Niasse. At least Liverpool had some practice playing against a deep three-at-the-back system on Tuesday.

And Liverpool will need all the help they can get. Again, forget the 5-1 win earlier this season. That was a much different, in-form Liverpool, and a much different Hull. Neither side's looked like that version for a month or two now.

And, while these were also very different sides, I can't help but mention that Liverpool haven't won at Hull in the last three trips. Not in 2014-15, when Hull were relegated and Liverpool often weren't good, an 0-1 loss in April when Liverpool had little to play for. Not in 2013-14, when Liverpool came so close to winning the league, a 1-3 loss arguably the season's most embarrassing result. And not in 2009-10, 0-0 on the last day of Rafa Benitez's troublesome last season.

This is where the campaign supposedly eases. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad January's over. Liverpool have all of three matches this month. Liverpool have almost everyone back and available and ready to go.

Liverpool need to be Liverpool again. Liverpool need to be the side that demolished tomorrow's opponents' 5-1.

01 February 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

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

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.



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

Another narrow match, just as in the last meeting. The away side scored first. The home side came back in the second half. Where Liverpool scored twice at Chelsea, from a set play and unlikely long-range blast, Chelsea scored once, a set play unlikely long-range blast.

Either side could have won. This time, neither did.

Despite all the evil this month, Liverpool came back. Liverpool got at least a point despite conceding the opener, something they were unable to do against either Swansea or Wolves. Liverpool limited Chelsea to a goal that goes in maybe once in 50 attempts, a strike Luiz usually fails to put on-target, and annoyingly helped by the fact Mignolet wasn't paying attention (although he's unlikely to save it anyway) and because the wall didn't jump quick enough.

Both sides will feel like they could have gotten more from this. Each side's gonna be mad about the goal they conceded, each side's gonna be mad about the goals they didn't score.

Chelsea hit the post in the second half through Moses' counter-attack, were denied Pedro in on goal by a wonderful last-man tackle from Henderson, and finished the match the far stronger side in the final 15 minutes, almost certainly symptomatic of how draining this month has been for Liverpool.

Liverpool had three clear-cut chances in the second half but scored just one. Firmino missed one, eight minutes before Wijnaldum scored, and sent one straight at Courtois in the 90th minute. How different it could have been had Liverpool been more ruthless, had Liverpool been just marginally more potent in attack. How many times I've written that this month. Liverpool also should have gotten a penalty when Moses barged Milner just inside the box in the 65th minute.

And Chelsea did get a penalty, ten minutes after Milner's claim. But Mignolet saved Diego Costa's 76th-minute spot kick, given when Costa dived in front of Matip. It was the 14th Premier League penalty that Mignolet's faced for Liverpool; he's now saved six of them, a surprisingly impressive record.

Honors even probably deserved. But Liverpool needed this match a lot more than Chelsea did. Chelsea just wanted to not lose, evident in just how defensive they were, all but copying the strategy that's frustrated Liverpool all month long but with more talented players. They focused on keeping in tight, staying deep, and congesting their own half. Kante was everywhere without the ball, even if he couldn't do anything with it.

That's all Chelsea needed because they were ten points ahead of Liverpool, nine ahead of Tottenham, and eight ahead of Arsenal going into this match. With Arsenal losing and Tottenham drawing, they remain far in the distance in first.

I am again tempted to blame Liverpool's attack, because that's what I do even when it's not entirely fair, with the front three again nowhere near their peak and struggling against a packed defense. Just seven shots in total, at home, albeit against the stingiest side in the league. It's the second-lowest total of the season, behind the home game against City, a match where Liverpool protected a lead for nearly the whole match rather than needing to chase a deficit. Despite 66% possession, Liverpool only took one shot in the first half – Wijnaldum from outside the box – which is a new low for the season. Just three shots on-target: that Wijnaldum effort from distance, Wijnaldum's goal, and Firmino's late, too-easily-saved clear-cut chance.

But, again, at least there were signs of improvement. In getting at least something of a result against Chelsea after failing to do so against far worse teams earlier this month. In setting the fierce pressing tone from the opening whistle. In taking the game to Chelsea, especially the first 30 minutes after halftime. In getting the equalizer. In getting three second-half clear-cut chances; only one side has equaled that total against Chelsea this season – Manchester City at the beginning of December. A match that City lost after dominating for an hour, a match where City failed to score any of those three clear-cut chances, with Chelsea's revival coming immediately after de Bruyne hit the woodwork with City's final big chance.

All told, it's probably a point gained rather than two lost, even if it's hard to look at it that way after the last month. And with a point gained, Liverpool will at least finish this slate of matches in fourth, if only on goal difference if City win at West Ham later today. Liverpool will be just a point off second despite this horrific month. It's likely that three points will separate second from sixth going into the weekend.

I hope we're able to look back on this – finally, the end of January – and say that Liverpool stopped the rot. After facing Hull on Saturday, Liverpool are done with two-matches-in-a-week until April, and we know how much better this side is with time on the training pitch and a week between games. Mané's back. Almost everyone's available, if not fully fit. Liverpool remain unbeaten against the rest of the top six this season.

It's a point gained against the runaway league leaders, a point earned by the second half performance and a necessary unwillingness to give in. There are 15 games still to play, with Liverpool's next two home matches against second and third.

Now, Liverpool need to push on from here. This needs to be a turning point rather than a false dawn.