12 November 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Fulham

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (a), Cardiff (h), Red Star Belgrade (h), Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), Napoli (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Leicester (a), Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

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

Why are Liverpool playing 4-2-3-1?

This is not a rhetorical question. I'm honestly asking. We almost never saw formation changes last season. 4-3-3 or bust, and a side built in that image, for that formation.

That hasn't been the case this season. We've seen 4-2-3-1 more often than 4-3-3 over the last month, but we've also seen a greater willingness to change the formation in general, as in the second half at Red Star when Liverpool switched to an eventual 4-2-2-2 when chasing the game.

Has it been because of the inconsistent attack? The misfiring midfield? Because of who's been available?

Yeah. A bit of all columns, I expect.

Because 4-2-3-1 isn't necessarily a "getting the best out of everyone" formation.

Yes, Liverpool have had midfield issues. Already. Oxlade-Chamberlain out for the season. Recent short-term injuries to both Henderson and Keïta. Fabinho has been needed, maybe sooner than Klopp had hoped. We've rightfully complained about the lack of creativity when Henderson, Milner, and Wijnaldum play together. Workmanlike rather than incisive. We've seen that Fabinho has been a stronger defender, better positioned, and a better passer from deep in the 4-2-3-1, with a double pivot midfield what he's most familiar with from Monaco. Changing Liverpool's formation has helped alleviate those midfield issues, if nothing else.

But, of course, it's not nothing else.

Liverpool's front three rightfully gets the headlines, both this season and last, but it's not just the front three. There were matches where they did all the attack: Roma, Porto, Watford, among multiple others. But there were matches where the midfield contribution was almost as important.

Even after Coutinho – with seven goals and six assists in the league – left in January, Liverpool continued getting help from midfield. Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain combined for six league goals but, more importantly, 11 assists. Can and Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal and assists in the 4-1 win over West Ham. Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal against City in the Champions League. Even Wijnaldum's cruical goal at Roma, a hapax legomenon away strike which just about sealed the tie.

It can't always just be Salah, Firmino, and Mané. Whether they're off-form, or defenders can focus on those three with no regard for other attackers, or it's just one of those days. You need more than three. You need options.

Enter Xherdan Shaqiri. With two goals and two assists in his last five matches. With an eye for a through ball, an ability to run at defenders rather than just past them, capable of shooting from distance or setting up a teammate. A different type of attacker than Firmino, Salah, and Mané; a necessary fourth attacker who can conjure something when the other three can't or aren't. A much greater attacking threat than Wijnaldum, Milner, or Henderson. Or Keïta, at least so far.

Obviously, there are still issues. Liverpool's wins have been thorough, but none has truly made jaws drop and caused expletives to be uttered, even the four-goal performances against Cardiff and Red Star.

Salah has stuttered up top at times, more closely marked by the opposition's center-backs. His goal yesterday is evidence of a greater potential threat when storming down the flank, whether better positioned to get behind the back line or more capable of isolating a solitary defender. There's more room to run out wide, and Salah often needs room to run. That and he's less likely to be on the ball when the spear-head, with just 17 attempted passes and only 39 touches against Fulham, compared to 69 for Shaqiri, 62 for Firmino, and 61 for Mané.

Similar goes for Firmino, who's yet to even approach his peak this season. Dropping into midfield from the #10, his average position yesterday almost inside the center circle, obviously takes him further from goal. Where he's less likely to drag defenders away from Salah and Mané, where he's less likely to play the short, cutting, just-outside-the-box assist. But there were signs on Sunday, with five chances created, the most he's had in a match since the 5-2 win over Roma back in April. He didn't register an assist, but they were mostly dangerous chances: three of the five into the penalty area, one clear-cut chance for Salah, another nearly clear-cut for Robertson on the counter midway through the second half.

But, you ask, why doesn't Liverpool play Firmino up top, Salah out wide, and Shaqiri as the #10? They've all played those positions before.

My guess? Part of the reason for the 4-2-3-1 has been personnel, and part has been to fix underlying issues. But Liverpool have also used this formation against sides more likely to sit deep and defend. Salah, even if he's not thriving in this striking role, is more likely to stretch the defense from that position rather than out right. Shaqiri, with his eye for through-balls and ability in possession, seems more likely to create for the other attackers from the right wing when there are multiple defenders in front of him. See: his recent assists against both Red Star and Huddersfield. And Firmino is more likely to remain the first defender in this formation, better able than Shaqiri to cover more ground chasing opponents, to press from multiple angles.

It's obviously not perfect. Fluidity still eludes as often as not. We still expect more from Liverpool's attack. And Liverpool can still be exposed on counter-attacks, as in the long ball to Mitrovic leading to Sessegnon's clear-cut chance in the 24th minute, as in the move through Liverpool's underbelly that lead to Mitrovic's chance saved just before halftime.

But, on the whole, it's better than what came before. The narrow, too-closely-contested 1-0 win at Huddersfield in the 4-3-3 formation with Shaqiri in midfield. The dumpster fire first half at Red Star. Even the first half at Arsenal, although that's not a side that's sat deep like most others of late.

It's another arrow in Liverpool's quiver. And, so far, it's getting results.

11 November 2018

Liverpool 2-0 Fulham

Salah 41'
Shaqiri 53'

A match in keeping with the rest of Liverpool's season so far.

Liverpool absolutely merited a win, but we're still nowhere near what Liverpool feels capable of. The attack's ragged more often than not. Clear-cut chances remain hard to come by. 4-2-3-1 still seems something of a band-aid, a way to fit both Fabinho and Shaqiri into a more comfortable formation despite sometimes feeling as if it's at the expense of Salah and Firmino, the former less influential up top, the latter dropping incredibly deep to link play.

And Liverpool remained lucky, as they've been for the majority of the season so far, both in their opening goal just before halftime as well as not already being behind before scoring it. For all of Liverpool's unsurprising possession, Fulham had the best chance of the opening half-hour, a goal kick from Sergio Rico, a flick-on by Mitrovic, Sessegnon somehow through Gomez's attempted tackle and one-on-one with Alisson only to push his shot wide. Play continued in a similar pattern, Liverpool possession and infrequent Fulham counters until a corner for the away side in the 40th minute, taken short, with a marginal – very, very marginal – offside decision ruling out Mitrovic's "goal."

Fulham are rightfully annoyed. It's just about offside, but you've seen them missed. And Liverpool are clever. Alisson immediately spreads play out to Alexander-Arnold. Look up, Salah's sprinting. Salah gets the pass, charging down the right flank – again, where he's far more likely to do damage. Salah's in behind, one-on-one with the keeper. And you know what happens in that situation.

And Fulham's game plan is boned. Teams have continued to bunker against Liverpool even after Liverpool takes a 1-0 lead this season – see: Palace, Brighton, Huddersfield, etc – hoping to capitalize on a counter or a set play or a mistake. The potential for 1-1 remains almost as good as 0-0 or 0-1 against Liverpool, especially at Anfield. A draw's all you've got the right to legitimately hope for anyway.

But now Liverpool start to turn the screws a bit more, especially after halftime. And it only takes eight minutes for 1-0 to turn into 2-0. Fulham, so close to opening the scoring on a set play. Liverpool, sealing the game on a set play. Alexander-Arnold's corner is cleared out to van Dijk, controlling on the left flank. Fulham start to come out. Liverpool see it and destroy it, Robertson's cross pin-point to an open Shaqiri on the back post, Fulham's defensive line shredded, a volleyed tap-in under no pressure.

2-0 is not 1-0. Liverpool *knocks on every piece of wood in arm's length* don't drop two-goal leads anymore.

From there, cruise control. Possession's easy. Fulham gets nothing, smothered and covered, limited to two shots from distance over the final 35 minutes, both from outside the box, Schürrle immediately blocked, Mitrovic nowhere close. Liverpool have a couple of chances, but Robertson and Firmino have shots saved and we get a bit more "close but no cigar" on a couple of counter-attacks. Same as it ever was: a little frustrating that Liverpool aren't out there slicing heads off, but more than good enough to get the needed result.

No matter the issues, Liverpool won, comprehensively if not dominantly. It was all but a formality when Liverpool scored a second, if not when Liverpool scored the first.

It was like Cardiff, but without both the opposition's consolation and Liverpool running up the score in the last five minutes. It was like Crystal Palace, the same result but that was away from home with this at Anfield. It was like Brighton, in a little too close for comfort for too long but never seemingly seriously in doubt.

It was Liverpool, still nowhere near what we think is Liverpool's best, but Liverpool absolutely good enough. Whether that will be enough in matches to come remains to be seen.

10 November 2018

Liverpool v Fulham 11.11.18

7am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (a) 02.12.14
4-0 Liverpool (h) 11.09.13
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.12.13
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.22.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Red Star (a); 1-1 Arsenal (a): 4-1 Cardiff (h)
Fulham: 0-1 Huddersfield (a); 0-2 City (a); 0-3 Bournemouth (h)

Goal scorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 6; Salah 5; Firmino, Milner, Sturridge 2; Matip, Shaqiri, Wijnaldum 1
Fulham: Mitrovic 5; Schürrle 4; Seri, Sessegnon 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren van Dijk Robertson
Shaqiri Henderson Keïta
Salah Firmino Mané

There are no easy matches.

Tuesday was supposed to be easy. The lowest ranked team in Liverpool's Champions League group. A team Liverpool beat 4-0 two weeks earlier. A 0-2 loss, conceding twice in seven minutes before spending the next hour throwing water balloons at a brick wall and expecting damage to result. Little creativity, no potency.

There are no easy matches. You come correct or you pay for it.

That said, Fulham are not good. Incredibly not good, sitting at the foot of the table, having one just once in the league back at the end of August. Having drawn just twice, the last coming six weeks ago. Surprisingly not good, considering they spent more than any club except Liverpool last summer.

So how are Liverpool going to punish Fulham? How are Liverpool going to respond to Tuesday's failure?

We'll have a few more players to pick from than on Tuesday. Keïta, Henderson, Lovren, and Gomez are all available after injury and illness concerns. Shaqiri's back in the squad, left out for Red Star due to political concerns. Liverpool can revamp the faltering, workmanlike-and-little-more midfield – the biggest problem area so far this season – which *should* help Liverpool create more and better chances, although Liverpool will still need to finish them.

So does that mean Keïta comes in, a more willing and able late runner into the box, a more dynamic offensive player, a more thorough and forceful presser? Or Henderson, usually better in matches against the lesser lights, his passing and possession able to pin sides deeper and deeper. Or Shaqiri, the most creative midfielder so far, even if he's played as a winger or #10 more often in his short Liverpool career?

Maybe Liverpool stick with the 4-2-3-1 which worked reasonably well when hosting Red Star and Cardiff. Shaqiri can play as the #10 or on the right, Salah out wide or up front, Firmino as the #10 or up front – although Firmino's lack of form has almost been as big an issue as the midfield. Fabinho's looked far, far better in this formation and, in theory, could play next to either Keïta – who played in this formation at Red Bull – or Henderson.

Or maybe we get the more familiar 4-3-3, with either Fabinho again adjusting to Liverpool's preferred formation alongside two others or Henderson as the deepest midfielder, bracketed by two from Keïta, Wijnaldum, Milner, and Shaqiri.

Liverpool, unlike in the last couple of matches, have more options thanks to the return of a couple midfielders. And, as a lesser concern, I also wouldn't be surprised to see Gomez continue at right back, both with Alexander-Arnold out of form and with Lovren – not Matip – available after missing midweek. I say "lesser concern" because, despite conceding twice at Red Star, the defense still ain't broken. Conceding a corner – just the second of the season after Tottenham's very late consolation – and an incredibly fortunate shot from distance ain't the end of the world. Nor does it suggest underlying issues.

Fulham have underlying issues. In every phase of play. Fulham should be a lot better than they've been.

That's a good squad. Mitrovic and Schürrle in attack, with five and four goals respectively. Seri and Anguissa in midfield. Ryan Sessegnon – still only 18 – as a winger or full back. £100m spent last summer.

Mitrovic and Schürrle – the only players with more than one goal – aside, they should score more goals than they have. They be more coherent in passing and possession. They've the tools and players to press the opposition more but haven't. They've conceded in every match this season except the first League Cup round against League Two Exeter, they've conceded at least two in all but two league matches. Their Expected Goals Difference is second-worst in the league, their Expected Points is third-worst.

It is confusing. And you'd think that if results don't change soon, Slavisa Jokanovic will be out of a job.

After trialling multiple XIs and formations, Jokanovic went with what's seemingly the best fit at Huddersfield on Monday. 4-3-3, with Sessegnon – who'd been playing more often as a winger – back at left-back; Cairney, Anguissa, and Seri as a three-man midfield for the first time this season; and Vietto, Mitrovic, and Schürrle all up front.

And they lost 0-1, again unable to get going in attack, unable to break down a Huddersfield side that admittedly gave Liverpool similar problems, unable to turn a possession advantage into chances, and also conceding an unfortunate fairly early own goal.

That said, I'm still guessing the same XI as in that match. Maybe I'm playing Football Manager here, but these still seem Fulham's best players in the formation most likely to succeed. Bettinetti; Fosu-Mensah, Odoi, Marchand, Sessegnon; Cairney, Anguissa, Seri; Vietto, Mitrovic, Schürrle.

We've got a Liverpool with key players returning, possibly rusty, probably not match-fit, but still likely to help the side. We've got a Liverpool needing to respond to a setback earlier this week. We've got a Liverpool that's yet to perform to potential but still unbeaten, still only two points off first, still with 27 points from a possible 33, the best return at this point in many a year.

And we've got opponents who are bottom of the league, massively underperforming, coming off a loss to potential relegation rivals. At Anfield.

There's one way this should go. Whether it's another narrow win where we lament some things that didn't go right or an absolute whomping. It should be a Liverpool win all the same.

05 November 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Cardiff (h), Red Star Belgrade (h), Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), Napoli (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Leicester (a), Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

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

I don't like spending more time writing about Liverpool's opponent than I do Liverpool. But that's what this match was about. What Arsenal did to Liverpool rather than what Liverpool did to Arsenal. From the opening minute.

Five of Arsenal's eight key passes in the first half came from Liverpool's right flank, including both early clear-cut chances.

Here's how Arsenal came to those two clear-cut chances.

Fourth minute. Arsenal gain possession after a failed Liverpool long clearance. Long cross field to get Liverpool's defense retreating laterally. Two against one down Alexander-Arnold's flank – Kolasinac and Aubameyang. Overlap, through ball, low cross. Alisson saves at the feet of Aubameyang.

15th minute. Arsenal gain possession after a failed Liverpool long clearance. More patient, sustained possession, but also two more long cross field switches of play, again two against one on Liverpool's right – Kolasinac and Aubameyang – cross, Mkhitaryan header wide. Liverpool's defense especially out of shape because Liverpool's fullbacks had switched sides while defending a corner and didn't have time to recover.

And these were just two moments. There were more, called back for offside, final passes off the mark, shots both errant and blocked – four of nine in the first half off-target, three more blocked by Liverpool defenders (two by van Dijk, one by Gomez). And moments welcomingly cleared by Liverpool, with nine first-half clearances in the defensive third from van Dijk and Gomez.

Liverpool necessarily had to change tactics, first evident in Wijnaldum's average position – both deeper and wider to add the defensive help Salah couldn't – then in the halftime formation switch, something of a 4-4-1-1 with Milner on the right. That slowed Arsenal's progress, still dominant in possession but unable to turn it into opportunities, even after Milner opened the scoring just after the hour.

Arsenal's only shot between the 46th and 81st minutes came from Torreira, outside the box and straight down Alisson's throat, from a throw-in after Arsenal launched the ball down the field following the restart after Liverpool's goal.

And then Arsenal made changes of their own, first bringing on Iwobi and Ramsey, hoping to use Ramsey as a late runner into the box from the #10 and Iwobi's speed down Liverpool's right with Aubameyang fading. It helped, at least in increased pressure if not efforts at goal, but the breakthrough didn't come until the final substitution, Welbeck for Kolasinac, and Arsenal matching Liverpool's 4-4-2 formation with Iwobi at left-back. And, naturally, it was Iwobi turned provider. Down Liverpool's right.

It didn't help that Liverpool's two defensive lines had increasingly retreated, reacting to Arsenal's pressure, likely fatigue, and the increasingly little time left on the clock. Probably shouldn't have that much space to thread the pass.

Plus, two strikers up top, both Lacazette and now Welbeck, momentarily unbalanced Liverpool's almost-always impressive center-backs, this sequence Welbeck's first action in the game. Who's going with who? Oops, they're in.

Changes matter, substitutions matter. Especially in matches as tight as this. In matches between surprisingly equal top six rivals, with only Manchester City head, shoulders, knees, and toes above their peers.

So, yes, this match ended up being more about what Arsenal did to Liverpool than vice versa. Which is obviously concerning.

The attack remains unbalanced, with only Salah performing near potential, leading Liverpool in both shots and key passes. Firmino struggled to get involved despite his three shots, with one hitting the post, failing to create a chance, registering his lowest passing total both of the season and as far back as I can remember. Mané tallied just one late blocked shot from distance, although we're all still shouting about the wrongly disallowed goal.

The midfield still underwhelms, especially in possession, with Fabinho often basically terrible on the ball and intermittently decent off it. Wijnaldum's again less influential further forward and Milner remains Milner. God loves a trier and the trying's rewarded in his goal, but he's still a jack of most trades and master of few. Liverpool misses the creativity but more importantly misses the breaking of lines and pressing that both Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain add to the unit. Or Lallana if he's anywhere near the Lallana of a year ago. Or potentially Shaqiri, with more familiarity in Liverpool's system.

Both facets are concerning. It ain't the first time we've talked about either this season. I'm not especially hopeful that this'll be the last time. This match demonstrated that there are ways to be stifle and exploit Liverpool, and other sides with have taken notice, just as Arsenal had, with the desire to challenge Liverpool's right flank evident from the off. Liverpool coped, for the for most part, Liverpool reacted, and it's not hard to see Liverpool coming away with all three points if not with just one or two moments turning out differently.

But it's also demonstrated that Arsenal are a damned decent team with a clever manager of their own.

03 November 2018

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Milner 61'
Lacazette 82'

Two ways to look at this one.

A fair result between evenly matched teams, second place at fourth place. Both with clear-cut chances and spells of dominance. Arsenal were on top early and late in the first half, early and late in the second half, Liverpool had counter-punching spells between. Both sides scored well-taken goals that also were aided by how the keeper dealt with the ball into the box. Liverpool remain unbeaten in the league, Arsenal remain unbeaten in the league since the first two matches. It's the same result, if not the same score line or same type of match, as in this fixture last season. If anything, Arsenal were the "better" side for longer in the match, for what little that's too often worth. Arsenal dominated possession, Arsenal – even with that defense – kept Salah, Firmino, Mané surprisingly quiet.

On the other hand, Liverpool had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside in the 18th minute, long before either side actually scored, right as Liverpool started their first-half spell of control. Alexander-Arnold chips into the box, Mané's offside but doesn't go for the ball, Firmino's onside and chips it over the keeper. The flag stays down, the shot hits the woodwork. Mané's now onside, behind the ball as Firmino shoots, but the flag goes up as soon as he taps into the empty net. Only the lord and linesman know why. It's probably a different match had that counted, with Arsenal necessarily pushing harder and harder earlier on and Liverpool reasonably positioned to counter and add more.

And Liverpool twice hit the post, first by Firmino, then van Dijk from Milner's deep free kick, with Leno also bushwhacking the defender after the ball was gone, an almost certain penalty if it'd been done by an outfield player but somehow forgivable when it's the goalkeeper.

And Liverpool had adjusted to and coped with Arsenal after the home side's more-than-decent first half. Arsenal ran Alexander-Arnold ragged for long stretches in the opening 45 minutes, and were starting to carve Liverpool open through the middle as Wijnaldum pushed wider and wider to compensate that flank. Liverpool were back in the 4-3-3 and it was not working, with Fabinho unsure where to go or where to pass out, with Liverpool's right shredded time and time again. The second half started with Liverpool back in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Fabinho and Wijnaldum as a double pivot, Milner wide right, Firmino as the #10, Salah up top. Arsenal had nine shots in the first half. They had one between the 46th and 81st minutes.

And Liverpool took the lead just after the hour mark, with Milner on hand to mop up after Robertson found Mané careening down the left, Leno punching Mané's byline cross off his own defender, falling perfectly for the captain to charge on to and arrow into the half-guarded net.

It had been 14 matches since Liverpool last dropped points after taking a lead in the Premier League, 2-0 at West Brom turning into 2-2 in the final 11 minutes. They'd held on in tight matches against Palace, Brighton, Leicester, Tottenham, and Huddersfield, even if those sides aren't Arsenal or – in the case of Tottenham – weren't playing anywhere near as well as Arsenal played today.

But then Arsenal scored in the 82nd minute. Iwobi, on as a substitute 15 minutes earlier, is now at left-back as Emery throws caution to the wind, is in space midway through Liverpool's half as Liverpool's defensive line retreats deeper and deeper. Milner and Wijnaldum can't get out to close down in time, and he threads a through ball between two Liverpool lines for Lacazette's perfectly timed run. Alisson charges out – maybe rightly, maybe wrongly. He cuts off Lacazette's sight of goal, he doesn't bring the player down. But Lacazette retains possession, turns, and somehow finds the postage stamp window between Alisson's left hand and van Dijk's clearing header.

Maybe the keeper could've done more. Maybe Liverpool's line should've been higher, should have been more resilient. But we've also got to give credit to both the build-up and finish.

We've also got to give credit to the opposition. It ain't always Liverpool's fault when Liverpool drop points. Liverpool at least kept Arsenal out in the first half, with the attack only firing intermittently. Liverpool coped, adjusted, regrouped, and took the lead. Liverpool did good things against a side that's been hard to do good things against so far this season, at least after their first two matches.

Which is why, as hard as it is in the moment, I'm trying to focus more on the supposedly fair result than what could and maybe should have been.

02 November 2018

Liverpool at Arsenal 11.03.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-3 (a) 12.22.17
4-0 Liverpool (h) 08.27.17
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.04.17
4-3 Liverpool (a) 08.14.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Cardiff (h); 4-0 Red Star (h); 1-0 Huddersfield (a)
Arsenal: 2-1 Blackpool (h); 2-2 Palace (a); 1-0 Sporting Lisbon (a)

Goal scorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 6; Salah 5; Firmino, Sturridge 2; Matip, Milner, Shaqiri, Wijnaldum 1
Arsenal: Aubameyang 7; Lacazette 4; Özil 3; Xhaka 2; Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Monreal, Mustafi, Ramsey, Welbeck 1

Referee: Andre Marriner (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Gomez van Dijk Robertson
Wijnaldum Fabinho
Shaqiri Firmino Mané

If it ain't broke.

Two games in a row with 4-2-3-1, with Fabinho and Wijnaldum holding, with a line of Firmino, Mane, and Shaqiri behind Salah.

Two wins while scoring four goals in each, conceding just one unnecessary goal late against Cardiff.

True, Arsenal are not Red Star or Cardiff. I would not be surprised to see Henderson or Milner come in for Shaqiri, to see Liverpool's more familiar formation. I wouldn't be surprised to see both Henderson and Milner if Liverpool return 4-3-3, with Fabinho also making way. I hope to see Gomez come back in for Lovren, with Alexander-Arnold on the right.

But if it ain't broke.

If there weren't three unbeaten teams in the league, Arsenal would be getting even more publicity and praise. They started the season with two losses, their first without Arsene Wenger as manager since 1996. Two understandable losses – against Manchester City and at Chelsea. And then they went on an 11-match winning streak before a draw at Palace last weekend, then winning with the B-team in the League Cup against Blackpool on Wednesday.

Seven wins, one draw, and two losses. 22 points, just two behind Chelsea and four behind Liverpool and City.

They're quite good in attack. Arsenal have scored four more goals than Liverpool so far this campaign. They put three past West Ham, Cardiff, and Leicester, and five past Fulham. They've scored at least twice in every league match except the opening day fixture at Manchester City.

Granted, they're seemingly over-performing – an Expected Goals total just over 14, but with 24 goals actually scored – but that's not entirely a bad thing. Liverpool over-performed by a similar margin last season and it was a lot of fun to watch unless you were playing Liverpool.

They're not quite as good defensively, having conceded nine more goals than Liverpool. They've kept just two clean sheets in the league, at home against Everton and Watford more than a month ago. Their 13 goals conceded, in contrast to the attack, is almost exactly in line with xG totals.

It's slightly understandable, both given Unai Emery's style – playing out from the back, reasonably heavy pressing, an emphasis on attacking patterns – and Arsenal's defensive injuries and the actual defenders involved. But it still ain't great. It's definitely something Liverpool can take advantage of.

And Arsenal might be without both starting fullbacks tomorrow; Bellerin went off with an injury at halftime at Palace while Monreal has missed the last four matches. Both could be in contention, but will be assessed tomorrow, as will Sokratis and Kolasinac. Elneny, Koscielny, and Mavropanos are injured and Guendouzi is suspended.

Arsenal do have options, and have had to use them over the last month. If only Bellerin's fit, Kolasinac or Lichtsteiner will play at left-back. They'd have played there more if not for Bellerin's and Kolasinac's respective injuries, meaning that Xhaka has been the stand-in left-back for the last few matches. If Bellerin's unable to feature, Lichtsteiner will stay at right-back with either Kolasinac or Xhaka on the other flank.

Otherwise, the Arsenal XI has been fairly consistent during their unbeaten stretch. Cech; Lichtsteiner, Mustafi, Holding, Xhaka; Torreira, Ramsey; Iwobi, Özil, Aubameyang; Lacazette.

Emery may be slightly more cautious than the recent attacking formations used, dropping one of Lacazatte or Aubameyang to the bench for Welbeck or Mkhitaryan. Cech's fit again – with Leno having started the previous three league matches – but Cech also pulled a Cech in the League Cup a few days ago, allowing Blackpool back in the game so *shrugs*.

These matches have been fairly bananas since Klopp took over. 3-3 at Arsenal in January 2016. 4-3 at Arsenal on Opening Day in 2016-17. Romps at Anfield in both 2016-17 and 2017-18, 3-1 and 4-0 respectively. And another 3-3 at Arsenal last December, Liverpool up 2-0 before conceding three in five minutes, then at least clawing a point back. Three goals scored by at least one side in all five fixtures, and by both sides in three of them.

Both sides have the potential to do so tomorrow. There are goals in those XIs, as we've seen from Arsenal over the last couple of months, as we've seen from Liverpool only sporadically this season, albeit more in the last two matches.

Liverpool, however, looks the more likely to keep the opposition from doing so.

29 October 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 4-1 Cardiff City

Previous Match Infographics: Red Star Belgrade (h), Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), Napoli (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Leicester (a), Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

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

Baby steps.

For 65 minutes, it was 1-0 Huddersfield, 1-0 Brighton. More the latter than the former, with Liverpool dominant in both possession and shots. But possession domination doesn’t always correlate to a good Liverpool performance and the majority of Liverpool’s shots were low-value shots. An early goal but no more. Possession without reward, possession running up against a thick brick wall then restarting again. A match narrower than it should be. Liverpool not as coherent or as thorough as we know they can be.

We’d been here before, both this season and in previous.

Liverpool’s nine shots between the first and second goal were all off-target or blocked, although there was Lallana’s on-target effort cleared off the line, technically “blocked” because it was cleared by a defender rather than a goalkeeper. Six of those nine shots came from outside the box, which is the highest proportion of shots from outside the box so far this season.

Liverpool may have been in control, but Cardiff were perfectly happy in their own right. 1-0 was little different than 0-0, as we’ve seen from multiple opponents of a similar level so far this season. Continue to defend as if lives depended upon it, hope for a mistake or a set play or something. Taking a point off of Liverpool at Anfield remains the apex of ambitions for two-thirds of the league, and you’re about as likely to do so at 1-0 as 0-0. Just don’t let them get to 2-0.

We’ve almost never seen Liverpool matches with more Liverpool possession. There has been only one league match with more Liverpool possession and a greater disparity in passing since Klopp became manager: 0-2 at Burnley at the beginning of 2016-17, where Burnley completely bunkered after Liverpool stupidly conceded early on. There have been only two other league matches in the last three-plus seasons where Liverpool had more than 75% possession: 1-1 v Everton last season and 2-0 at Sunderland in 2016-17. An embarrassing loss, a frustrating draw, and a win that only came very, very late, with two goals after the 75th minute against a side that’d be relegated at the end of the season.

That much possession, against a side happy to sit that deep, hasn’t good especially well for Klopp’s Liverpool in the past.

Saturday was different. Because, in the 66th minute, Liverpool got a second.

For the final 15 minutes – the final 25 if we somehow ignore Cardiff’s consolation – it was Red Star Belgrade rather than Brighton or Huddersfield. Counter-pressing by Firmino and Mané leading to Liverpool’s second, a refusal to let the ball leave Cardiff’s penalty area after Fabinho got it in there before a blistering finish. Continued boulder rolling downhill possession before Salah danced through two defenders and Shaqiri danced around two more for the game-killing third. An actual honest-to-goodness blitz counter: Fabinho winning the ball, to Mane to Salah running at retreating defenders, through ball back to Mané, exclamation point.

That’s the Liverpool we’ve missed. That’s the Liverpool we’re going to see more often in the coming weeks and months.

It should have been over after the second goal, but we got a timely reminder that it takes just one moment. Mané doesn’t track back. Moreno does a Moreno, rashly charging at Reid to win the ball and missing allowing Hoilett to receive a pass in space behind the defense. His cross ricochets off van Dijk directly to Paterson; it would have been behind the striker had it not hit van Dijk.

There goes Liverpool’s clean sheet streak, more than nine matches and 918 minutes without conceding at home in the league. And I ain’t mad at it. It was a little poor and a little unlucky but sometimes that’s all to need to concede. Even when you’ve had almost 80% possession and the opposition’s yet to register a shot.

It’s a helpful reminder that’s all it takes sometimes. Never switch off, no matter the opponents or game state. Must not sleep. Must warn others.

And once Cardiff got a goal, Liverpool got the chances. No nerves. No tilt. Just back to business. Once you get to 2-0, the opposition’s got to open up. And once they get to 2-1, they believe there’s a chance for 2-2. It’s happened to previous incarnations of Liverpool, as we all very much remember.

This might be a different Liverpool.

2-1 is when Liverpool started to register shots again. 2-1 is when Liverpool got chances to counter. 2-1 is when the front three found space to create chances for themselves, with Salah getting both of his assists with those last two goals.

Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 formation again looked decent, at least at the controlling midfield base, Wijnaldum literally always on the ball and Fabinho capable of moving it forward from deep, both capable of winning possession back if Cardiff ever truly tried to transition. Wijnaldum only completed 14 fewer passes than Cardiff in total. Lovren and van Dijk controlled the majority of long balls from defense, winning a combined 15 aerial duels when that was Cardiff’s main tactic for progression, with goalkeeper Neil Etheridge playing the joint-most passes for the away side.

How dominant were Liverpool in possession? No Cardiff player attempted more passes than any Liverpool outfield player, with even Liverpool’s two substitutes playing more than any opponent. I can’t remember that every happening.

Liverpool’s substitutions helped matters, with Shaqiri more influential than Lallana, creating for Salah before finally scoring his first Liverpool goal. Milner came on for more solidity, the three in midfield a platform for both the turning-the-screws possession before Liverpool’s goal, then winning-the-ball-back transition for Liverpool’s fourth.

And Liverpool’s attack goes and gets goals. Salah and Mané each on the score sheet, for the second match in a row. It’s the second time this season’s Mané's scored twice in a match, it’s the first time Salah’s registered two assists in a match since the 5-2 win over Roma back in April. Even if Firmino has an off day – just one shot and one key pass, routinely man-marked by Gunnarsson – the other two compensated more than adequately.

There were struggles. There was frustration. There were some of the issues that have plagued Liverpool – unbeaten in the league Liverpool – over the last month. But then there was the return of potency we’d been hoping to see continue following the romp over Red Star. There’s another win, a resounding win by the end of it, in the type of match that’s foiled and frustrated Liverpool in seasons past. There’s now ten games unbeaten to start the campaign.

There’s Liverpool, top of the table, at least for a few more hours today.

27 October 2018

Liverpool 4-1 Cardiff City

Salah 10’
Mané 66’ 86’
Paterson 77’
Shaqiri 84’

Normal service, resumed. For the most part.

Four goals, for the second time in four days. Four goals in consecutive matches for the first time since February. Salah with a goal and two assists, Mané with two goals, Shaqiri with his first goal for Liverpool.

But there was still a bit of 1-0 Huddersfield, 1-0 Brighton. There was still a bit of *rolls up newspaper* “NO BAD” in defense. There was marginal worry. There was too long between the first and second goals. There was an unnecessary consolation conceded at 2-0, giving us a fright for a few minutes and wrecking Liverpool’s 918-minute long Anfield league clean sheet.

But there were four goals and another win and the Premier League unbeaten streak rolls on and Liverpool are top of the table at least until Monday.

It looked like a rout from the first minute. Liverpool rolled over Cardiff like a rising tide. Come, clear, come again. A goal within ten minutes: Mané and Wijnaldum blocked after Cardiff failed to hoof away, then Salah first to the loose ball. A penalty shout – Salah wrestled by Morrison and hitting the turf – and van Dijk’s header off the post within the next five.

But then, a bit of rugged. A bit of raw. Slowly increasing frustration, memories of Huddersfield and Brighton lingering. No more shots on-target after the goal until the last second of added time. Cardiff still playing as if it was 0-0, seven men spread across the top of the penalty box, hoof, regroup. Liverpool close but no cigar to another breakthrough, a final pass cut out, a defender making the necessary tackle. Huddersfield. Brighton. 1-0, and no more, and not especially threatening more until Lallana’s 46th minute header was cleared off the line by Morrison.

And the second half started in similar fashion. The struggle is real. The frustration mounts. Cardiff have the ball in the net from a set play, but it's rightfully ruled offside in the build-up.

Then we're back, baby. Then Sadio Mané does Sadio Mané things, cutting inside from the left across the top of the box, surrounded by two Cardiff defenders and Moreno, somehow wriggling through all three to smash a left-footer past Etheridge. 66 minutes gone and it finally feels like we’re done here.

Except that we weren’t 11 minutes later. Liverpool fall asleep on a Cardiff throw-in. Moreno does a Moreno, charging out and completely missing a tackle leading to a two-on-one. Hoilett’s cross unfortunately deflects off van Dijk straight to Paterson for a tap-in. Now it's 2-1 and it's from Cardiff’s first shot of the match.

And now we’re nervous. Now we’re remembering previous matches where Liverpool’s tossed away a lead.

That was last season. Liverpool don’t remember those matches. Liverpool weren’t nervous. Now the counter comes off. Now the goals come.

A bit of calming possession then Fabinho into Salah with his back to goal, cut inside, flick through a Cardiff’s retreating line. Shaqiri dances a first defender to the floor and shifts around a second, then slides a left-footer around Etheridge. There was.a nice symmetry to Salah’s goal on Wednesday set up by Shaqiri, a similar assist this time played by the former for the latter.

3-1, less than seven minutes after conceding, with Cardiff barely leaving their own half between the goals.

Two minutes later, Fabinho tackles a Cardiff attacker, straight to Mané. To Salah. Run forward, through ball between two. Chipped keeper.


So much for the nerves.

Only a little bit of drama. Only a bit of “is this enough?” Liverpool continue to improve its creativity while continuing in the 4-2-3-1 formation, although Lallana did not have the match that Shaqiri did on Wednesday. Fabinho and Wijnaldum were again an excellent pairing in midfield. Liverpool continue to improve its finishing, with four goals from seven shots on-target, with 19 shots in total, with four clear-cut chances coming against a side that kept ten men in their own half for almost the entirety. Salah scores again, Mané scores again.

Liverpool did so with players such as Shaqiri, Robertson, Gomez, Henderson, and Milner either left out or on the bench, with Moreno making his first league start, Lallana his second, and Lovren his third. Liverpool did so while again using its squad depth, even with a week before the next match, because that squad depth's going to be necessary later in the campaign.

Wednesday was the first step in reclaiming the form and receiving the results that we know Liverpool are capable of. This was very much a second.

26 October 2018

Liverpool v Cardiff City 10.27.18

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
6-3 Liverpool (a) 03.22.14
3-1 Liverpool (h) 12.21.13
2-2 Liverpool aet (n; League Cup) 02.26.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.31.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Red Star (h); 1-0 Huddersfield (a); 0-0 City (h)
Cardiff: 4-2 Fulham (h); 0-1 Tottenham (a); 1-2 Burnley (h)

Goal scorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané, Salah 4; Firmino, Sturridge 2; Matip, Milner, Wijnaldum 1
Cardiff: J Murphy 2; Bamba, Camarasa, Harris, Paterson, Reid, Ward 1

Referee: Stuart Attwell (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Gomez van Dijk Robertson
Wijnaldum Fabinho Milner
Salah Firmino Mané

There’s a very good argument for not changing the XI from Wednesday.

I mean, y’all saw the match. Liverpool were good. Liverpool were creative. Liverpool scored four and could have had a few more and didn’t even allow a single shot on-target. And it was the first time in a while we could say those things about the attack.

So why change?

Maybe Liverpool shouldn’t. There will be a week before traveling to Arsenal, Liverpool without a midweek game. Cardiff will do some things similarly to Red Star. Liverpool were both more creative and even more secure through the middle with Wednesday’s formation and XI.

But Klopp rotates. Liverpool have a reasonably large squad – even with Keïta and Henderson still absent – and Liverpool want to use that squad. Klopp spent some of today’s press conference talking up Origi, Solanke, Clyne, and Matip – players who’ve barely if at all featured so far this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two names we don’t expect nor would I be surprised to see a return to the more familiar 4-3-3 formation – a formation that Fabinho will have to acclimatize to at some point.

So the above guess is a hedge between those factors. Even if it is desperately unfair to Shaqiri, who has been excellent in the last two matches. Heck, maybe I should just guess the same XI as last time.

Meanwhile, Cardiff may have just gotten their first win last week, but it’s been an understandably difficult road to this point. They’ve already hosted Arsenal and Manchester City and travelled to Chelsea and Tottenham, losing 2-3, 0-5, 1-4, and 0-1 in those matches. This’ll be their tenth games of the campaign and five of them will have been against last season’s top six. The last two recent losses prior to Fulham were a lot narrower, one-goal defeats to Burnley and Tottenham, only losing 1-0 at Spurs despite conceding in the eighth minute and having a player sent off in the 58th.

Without any real point of comparison, my best guess is the same XI that beat Fulham. Etheridge; Manga, Morrison, Bamba, Bennett; Camarasa, Gunnarsson, Arter, J Murphy; Reid; Paterson. Ralls will miss out in midfield, serving the second of a three-match ban for a red card at Tottenham, but Aron Gunnarsson’s finally fit, having made his first start in the last match. Camarasa can pay both centrally or out wide; Paterson has started up top lately but can also play deeper. Cardiff could start Hoilett out wide or Danny Ward (not that one) or Gary Madine up front if changes are to be made.

Neil Warnock has never won as manager at Anfield, losing 4-0 with Notts County, 2-0 and 4-0 with Sheffield United, and 1-0 with Queens Park Rangers, but he did win his last match against Liverpool during his short reign as Palace manager, 1-3 at Palace in November 2014.

And Warnock’s already talking down his side’s potential, saying that it’s “virtually impossible” to win at Anfield these days. He’s not necessarily wrong, even if that is gamesmanship to put even more pressure on Liverpool while taking it off his side. “Oh, poor us, we’ll never get anything” and then if they do get anything, break out the bus we’re having a parade.

Cardiff, unsurprisingly, are a very Championship squad playing a very Championship style. It’s what Neil Warnock knows, it’s what Neil Warnock’s always done. They’re strong in the air and at set plays. They absolutely love crosses. Josh Murphy, Reid, and Hoillett are quick on the counter. They’re rugged and deep defensively. They want next to nothing to do with the ball, joint-lowest in possession along with Brighton and with the worst passing accuracy in the league by far.

The Brighton comparison actually works reasonably well. Chris Hughton’s side was built in a similar manner, plays a similar style. And Brighton gave Liverpool problems two months ago, holding Liverpool reasonably at bay at Anfield despite an early goal from Salah and multiple Liverpool chances, even nearly finding an equalizer through Groß’ late clear-cut chance.

Liverpool nearly dropped two points in that Brighton match because of an inability to convert their own chances, something we’ve complained about multiple times this season. We certainly weren’t complaining about that on Wednesday – well, “complain” isn’t the right word; Liverpool scored four but another two or three wouldn’t have flattered.

More of that please. We know that Liverpool are capable of doing so.

25 October 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Red Star Belgrade

Previous Match Infographics: Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), Napoli (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Leicester (a), Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

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

(Here’s the formation diagram that’s usually included in match reviews)

One match is one match is one match but hoooooooo boy that’s normal service resumed, that’s the Liverpool attack we’ve come to know and love and love.

Four goals, for the first time since opening day.

21 shots, the most since a 1-0 win over Brighton at the end of August.

11 shots on-target, the most since hammering Brighton on the last day of last season’s league campaign.

Nine clear-cut chances, for the first time that I can remember in a single match.

And goals for Firmino, Sarah, and Mané, the first time all three have scored in a single match this season after doing it eight times last season, with the final in the Champions League against Roma at Anfield.

That’s a paddlin’.

I won’t pretend to be any expert on them, but Red Star are not a bad side.

The Euro Club Index isn’t infallible, obviously, but it’s not a bad starting point. Red Star are top of the Serbian league by seven points already, after only 12 matches, having won 11 and drawn one. They’re in the Champions League proper because of an away goal win over Red Bull Salzburg – last season’s Europa League semi-finalists. They held Napoli to a 0-0 draw in the first Champions League match week. They tried to take the game to Liverpool, pressing early, with their two best chances coming before Liverpool’s opener – including a clear-cut chance when Babic got free on a corner.

But then Liverpool Liverpooled.

Counter-pressing leading to the first, with Shaqiri chasing down Ebecilio as Red Star tried to get out, a few quick passes then an incisive run from the thiccness, splitting the defense to find Robertson on the byline, cut back for Firmino to control and finish.

Then a bit of a lull – Liverpool’s longest stretch without a shot. Similar happened after scoring at Huddersfield around the same time. But rather than let Red Star back into the game, Liverpool controlled and pulled and poked and prodded and eventually got the necessary second just before halftime, a long, long, long pass-filled stretch – albeit with one failed clearance falling to Wijnaldum just before the goal – with Shaqiri again the creative hub, a wonderful touch to lay Wijnaldum’s pass into Salah at pace, controlled, right-footed.

That second goal was everything, especially coming so close to halftime. That’s the back-breaker. That gave Liverpool the necessary breathing space. That gave Liverpool more space to attack, more chances to counter, as Red Star had to at least come out a little bit, even if more of the second half was damage control, especially after a soft penalty for an elbow clothesline on Mané, converted by Sarah for his second of the match and 50th for Liverpool, the quickest Liverpool player to hit that mark.

And unlike in recent matches, Liverpool made use of those counter-attacking opportunities. More goals would not have flattered the home side. Just look at all those clear-cut chances in the last 40 minutes. Fabinho over the top for Alexander-Arnold, nearly first-touch lofted over the keeper. A second penalty, taken by Many after a set play handball, wonderfully saved with the follow-up poorly missed. A defensive error and counter-pressing leading to Liverpool’s fourth, with Wijnaldum stepping in front of El Fardou Ben to intercept Babic’s pass, feeding Sturridge who smartly and selflessly found Mané. Lallana put through on goal from Sturridge’s through ball, caught by the trailing defender and shooting too close to Borjan. Mane in second half injury time, over the top to Firmino, through-ball in behind, into the side-netting.

There were more than a few factors responsible for it. Fabinho grew into the game as a double pivot, with both he and Wijnaldum excellent. Fabinho destroyed – and boy did he ever with nine successful tackles, a high for a Liverpool player this season, six aerial duel wins, and only two fouls committed – while Wijnaldum started and linked. Firmino as the #10 and Shaqiri cutting inside gave Liverpool more creativity from that area, with Mané coming inside as well. Shaqiri’s passes for the first and second goals were remarkable, and exactly the type of passes that Liverpool had failed to make in recent matches; Firmino played a similar through-ball from deep for Mané's injury time pass. And Salah stretched play centrally, keeping both center-backs busy while Shaqiri, Mané, and Firmino looked to do damage around him. Oh, and he scored twice and he’s got six goals in all competitions this season and he’s so out of form what happened to Salah.

And that attack came without any defensive lapses – at least after that set play clear-cut chance in the 17th minute. Only four shots allowed all match, with none on target. That’s the fewest shots allowed in a match this season and the first time that Liverpool’s opponent had no shots on-target since the 3-0 win over Southampton in November 2017.

This was Liverpool’s seventh clean sheet of the season. On October 24th. Liverpool’s seventh clean sheet came more than a month later last season, on November 18th against Southampton, in the 19th match of the season. Since the beginning of March, Liverpool have conceded six goals at Anfield in 15 matches, with all coming in cup competition – two against Roma, PSG, and Chelsea.

This was Liverpool putting everything together, with still evident room for improvement. Now, Liverpool have to do it more consistently.

22 October 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Huddersfield Town

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Napoli (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Leicester (a), Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

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

Will you be surprised if I spend the majority of this writing about Liverpool’s attack?

That’s what I thought.

Are we at the point where there’s legitimate cause for concern?

Liverpool have taken just four, seven, and 11 shots in their last three matches – at Napoli, against City, and at Huddersfield. Liverpool took 11 or fewer shots in just five league matches last season: City away, Tottenham at home, Everton away, West Brom away, and Chelsea away, with the last three in the final six weeks of the season, when far more focus was on the Champions League.

They’ve failed to create a clear-cut chance in all three of those matches. Liverpool never went more than a single match without a clear-cut chance last season, failing to register at least one in just two league matches all season.

The attack started out well enough. Goals and more goals against West Ham, good attacking performances against Palace, Brighton, and Tottenham without as much reward as we’d a right to expect. But it’s very much lessened over the last few weeks. Not only are more passes and shots going astray, build-up is slower, the press has lessened, and Liverpool simply aren’t getting the chances to which we’ve become accustomed.

Liverpool are averaging 14 shots per game so far this season; that average was 18.7 at this point last season. Granted, only two other teams average more per game – Chelsea and Manchester City – but an extra four shots a game certainly couldn’t hurt Liverpool’s potential output.

Huddersfield actually out-shot Liverpool on Saturday, which still amazes. Liverpool were out-shot by just one non-top-six side last season, the unlikely and unfortunate late-season 2-2 draw at West Brom where Liverpool threw away a two-goal lead after scoring very early.

And Huddersfield away is not Napoli away or City at home, even considering the rotation required in the front six. Liverpool aren’t taking enough shots, they’re not great shots, and far too many aren’t on target.

Liverpool put just two shots on-target on Saturday; that only happened in three league matches last season: Newcastle away, United away, and Stoke at home. Liverpool drew two of those and lost the other.

I doubt I need remind that Liverpool won on Saturday.

These complaints about the attack are somewhat moot when the defense is playing as well as it has. Sure, Huddersfield haven’t scored at home since April. They’ve scored all of four goals so far this season, through ten matches in all competitions. A better side could easily have taken advantage of Liverpool; better placed shots from Depoitre, Hogg’s effort off the woodwork, a narrow offside decision denying a goal. Even a different referee; I’d have been more than annoyed had Liverpool not gotten a penalty from that Milner handball situation.

But this remains a very impressive defense.

Huddersfield’s 13 shots were the most allowed by Liverpool in a league match so far this season. And those 13 shots had an Expected Goals total of 0.9 – an average of just 0.07 per shot. Which is not good. Yet another match without an opposition clear-cut chance, as against Southampton, Tottenham, Palace, and West Ham; even all-powerful Manchester City were limited to just one from the penalty spot, thankfully missed.

At this point last season, Liverpool had 15 points from their first nine games. They’d scored three against Watford and Leicester and four against Arsenal, as well as seven at Maribor in the Champions League, but they also conceded 16 goals – three against Watford, four at Tottenham, five at City – with just three clean sheets.

This season? Three goals conceded, six clean sheets. Three goals, in total.

Just 25 league goals conceded since that 1-4 loss at Tottenham exactly a year ago, Liverpool’s best mark for 38 games in nearly a decade. Liverpool conceded double that in Klopp’s first 38 league games. No Premier League side has conceded fewer goals in the last year.

Through these nine league matches last season, Liverpool over performed their Expected Goals by five and a half, on pace for 18.5 xG but scoring 24. So far this season, Liverpool *should have* scored 17.3 but have actually scored 16. It hasn’t been great in theory or practice, but it’s not that far behind last season’s mark in these fixtures.

Then there’s the defense. Two fewer Expected Goals than in these matches last season, nine fewer actually conceded. The most improvement in matches against rivals, conceding seven at Tottenham and against City last season but just one in the two matches this season.

So, yeah, recent matches may not be as fun to watch. We ain’t getting the highs of last season. We haven’t gotten the riots, the blitzkriegs, the goals, the quickening pulse, the cardiac arrest. But we ain’t getting the lows either, thanks to an increased solidity at the back.

At least not yet.

20 October 2018

Liverpool 1-0 Huddersfield

Salah 24’

Probably shouldn’t complain about a win.

Probably shouldn’t complain when Liverpool hadn’t won their previous four matches.

Probably shouldn’t complain when Liverpool rotated the starting XI fairly heavily, with Shaqiri, Lallana, and Sturridge coming into the side, with Lallana wide left and Shaqiri in midfield.

Probably shouldn’t complain when Mohamed Salah’s back on the score sheet.

Probably shouldn’t complain that Liverpool still didn’t look anywhere near their best, especially in attack.

Probably shouldn’t complain that Huddersfield probably should have been level going into halftime, a flurry that saw Hogg nail the woodwork from long range, Billing nearly in on the break, a potential handball by Milner ignored, and the ball in the net but ruled out for offside.

Probably shouldn’t complain that neither side was especially good in the second half but that Huddersfield still felt the more likely. When they hadn’t scored at home since last April.

In all seriousness, that wasn’t good. It was further progression, or regression, of what we’ve seen for the majority of the season so far.

The defense is fine. They may have a fright or two, the opposition might pull a rabbit from a hat, but they’ll limit chances, especially good chances, and they’re odds on to keep a clean sheet, as they’ve done in six of nine league matches.

The midfield is still under-creative and seemingly already overworked. Henderson withdrawn at halftime for Wijnaldum – who might well have been Liverpool’s best player. Milner, just back from injury, off the pace and removed for Firmino with 15 minutes to play as Liverpool switched to 4-4-2. Keïta's probably out for at least another week or two. At least Fabinho got 30 minutes off the bench. At least Shaqiri was reasonably able to find space between the lines, most notably on the assist for Salah’s goal, but Shaqiri in midfield is part of the reason why Huddersfield could take the game to Liverpool for stretches. He ain’t defending much if it’s not pressing, at least not yet.

And then there’s the attack. It’s getting harder to write “they’ll click soon, they have to.” Sure, Salah scored and it was neat and fun, supplied by Shaqiri's throughball, first time from a tight angle with his weaker foot, perfectly placed into the far corner. Sure, he had Liverpool’s only other shot on-target, an unbelievable shift of the ball and stab at Lössl from close range in the 87th minute. Sure, Mané missed the match and Firmino only got 15 minutes and that front six hasn't played together often, whether talking about the starters or substitutes. Otherwise, ugh.

That Liverpool had just two shots on-target in the entire match, against a side they beat 3-0 in both meetings last season is probably a good place to start. Sturridge with a couple of curlers, another from Salah, Firmino from the top of the box – just off the top of my head chances that those players *usually* at least put on frame. And it ain't for the first time this season.

But it's deeper than that. It starts deeper than that. Interplay is not happening, whether during sustained build-up or counter-attacks. Flicks ain’t finding runners. Four on two on the break and players are picking the wrong option, mis-hit or intercepted with someone else in space. Dribblers are surrounded, dribblers run into defenders. Liverpool are also playing slower than usual, which seems so very unlike a Jürgen Klopp side but also has to be on purpose, whether due to having a lead or fitness levels or who the hell knows.

Two shots on-target is bad. Just 11 shots in total might well be worse.

There were elements of the Brighton game back in August in both result and quality of opposition, but Liverpool absolutely dominated that match, controlling tempo, tenor, and possession, denied time and again by a very deep and organized defense.

Huddersfield went toe-to-toe with Liverpool. Huddersfield out-shot Liverpool. Huddersfield created slightly more than Liverpool, with a higher Expected Goals total – even if neither side made it to 1.0 xG. Huddersfield almost certainly feels as if they deserved a draw.

But they didn’t get a draw. Liverpool won. Liverpool remain unbeaten in the league, now sitting on 23 points. Liverpool haven’t taken 23 points from the first nine league matches since 2008-09, and I suspect you remember that season. Liverpool remain level on points with Manchester City, only in second due to an increasingly large goal difference gap.

Probably shouldn’t complain about that.

But Liverpool still have to be better than this.

19 October 2018

Liverpool at Huddersfield 10.20.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.30.18
3-0 Liverpool (h) 10.28.17
2-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 12.12.99
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.12.72

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 City (h); 0-1 Napoli (a); 1-1 Chelsea (a)
Huddersfield: 1-1 Burnley (a); 0-2 Tottenham (h); 1-3 Leicester (a)

Goal scorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 4; Salah 3; Firmino, Sturridge 2; Matip, Milner, Wijnaldum 1
Huddersfield: Billing, Gorenc-Stankovic, Schindler, Zanka 1

Referee: Michael Oliver (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Gomez van Dijk Robertson
Wijnaldum Henderson Milner
Salah Firmino Shaqiri

I love international breaks.

Sadio Mane has a broken thumb, undergoing surgery on Wednesday. Mo Salah supposedly re-injured his temperamental groin – yes, I’m aware that’s a euphemism doing a lot of work – and returned to Liverpool after Egypt’s first international match. Virgil van Dijk’s still dealing with that rib problem. Naby Keïta pulled his hamstring. And, even though I can’t blame the international break, James Milner is still recovering from a hamstring injury suffered against Manchester City.

Fun times were had by all.

It’s not completely bad news, though. Salah, Milner, and van Dijk all trained on Thursday, so there’s that. All should be available tomorrow, although I remain worried about all three. Liverpool do have quite a few games coming up in the next few weeks, even if most aren’t against the quality of opposition faced prior to the last break.

So guessing tomorrow’s XI isn’t the easiest. There’s the obvious, guessing everyone who could be available to play in the usual formation. There’s the protection option, leaving at least one or two of the questionable players on the bench – Both Shaqiri and Lallana could, in theory, play in midfield; Fabinho seems due for a start; Sturridge might be in the best form of any front six Liverpool players. And there’s the curveball, something like 4-4-2 with both Sturridge and Firmino up top or 4-2-3-1 with Shaqiri in the hole.

As per usual, your guess is as good as mine. And as usual, my guess is usually what’s been the most familiar, rotation be damned. More important, obviously, is that the Liverpool attack that’s still got decent underlying statistics actually turns those statistics into honest to goodness goals.

Meanwhile, Huddersfield. Who, um, are not very good. They’re in 18th place, ahead of only Newcastle and Cardiff. They’re yet to win this season, with three draws in the league. They’re out of the League Cup after losing to Stoke. And they’ve scored just four goals through nine matches in all competitions. Three of those four came from defenders. Three of the four came from set plays – a corner and two throw-ins – with the fourth coming from a lofted cross.

And Huddersfield have some injuries of their own. Kongolo’s definitely absent, while Löwe, Mooy, Billing, Williams, Smith, and Sobhi are all questionable. But all those questionable seem capable of playing if needed. So let’s guess that they will. Something like Lössl; Smith, Zanka, Schindler, Löwe; Hogg, Mooy; Kachunga, Pritchard, van la Parra; Depoitre. 4-2-3-1 is Huddersfield’s most frequent formation, but it is worth noting that Huddersfield have played three at the back a couple of times this season, including a recent 0-2 loss to Tottenham. However, three at the back often goes poorly for Liverpool’s opponents.

Even considering injuries and annoyances, the international break seemingly came at a decent time. Liverpool remain winless in four. Liverpool still aren’t firing in attack, even if they're still more than competent in defense. Liverpool needed the breathing space. We needed the breathing space.

And now, Liverpool have a run of very winnable matches, starting at Huddersfield, against opponents they beat 3-0 in both meetings last season, against opponents who’ve yet to win this season. Then Red Star Belgrade. Then Cardiff. Then to be fair, away at Arsenal, but followed by Red Star, Fulham, and Watford.

Liverpool made it through the first fifth of the season adequately. It could have been better. But it’s usually been worse. We’re calling joint-top with 20 from 24 points adequate, after playing three of last season’s top five in the first eight games.

Now to put the pedal to the floor. Sorry, Huddersfield.

09 October 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: Napoli (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Leicester (a), Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

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

Yes, yes. We’ve talked enough about how Liverpool’s attack is a little bit scary right now. And not scary in the “we’re going to disembowel you and then show you the bowels” way from the majority of last season but scary in the “what happened why don’t you love us anymore” way.

Two consecutive games without a Liverpool goal, something which hasn’t happened since January 2017, in the FA and League Cups rather than Champions League and Premier League. Four consecutive games without a goal from Salah, Firmino, or Mané; the longest stretch last season was three games, 1-1s against Spartak and Newcastle before 0-0 against United, almost exactly a year ago, with Coutinho scoring both goals.

The front three just aren’t clicking. They’re snatching at shots and passes. Confidence, so ephemeral and intangible, seems to be getting worse with each failed touch. Neither Firmino nor Mané took a shot or created a chance on Sunday, even if Salah looked a bit better than in the previous two matches. The midfield isn’t picking up the slack, can’t quite pick up the slack, especially in regards to creativity.

It’s not great. But it’s also happening against Chelsea, Napoli, and now Manchester City. Early in the season, before everyone’s seemingly in peak form – especially after a World Cup summer – with fixture congestion already piling up between unnecessary international breaks. Against that slate of teams.

It might not be great, it might not be fun, but at least it’s understandable, and chances are that it’ll improve. Just take a look at Liverpool’s upcoming fixtures. Away at Arsenal aside, the next month and a half of matches ain’t exactly a murderer’s row.

So let’s talk about some good. Let’s again talk about Liverpool’s defense. Penalty aside, Liverpool remains good at the defense. Especially at Anfield.

Liverpool have not allowed a league goal at Anfield since West Ham’s consolation in the 4-1 win back in February. There have been nine clean sheets since – against Newcastle, Watford, Bournemouth, Stoke, Brighton, West Ham, Brighton, Southampton, and City. Liverpool are averaging an allowed 1.44 shots on-target in those nine matches, with just 5.33 shots allowed in total per match. Liverpool have allowed just five clear-cut chances in those nine games, including only two this season – Groß’s late chance for Brighton saved by Alisson and Mahrez’s penalty miss.

To be fair, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. With one more shot on-target, specifically Mahrez’s penalty, this is a different result with different feelings and Liverpool’s clean sheet streak is over. Fine margins when sides are this evenly matched, etc etc.

That said, Manchester City’s six shots were the fewest they’ve had in a league match since Guardiola became manager. This was the first time that City have been held scoreless this season and only the third time in a league match since the start of last season.

Manchester City are not an easy side to keep quiet or keep out, and Liverpool did so, even if they needed some luck at the end. Manchester City felt the need to change its style to counter-act Liverpool, even a Liverpool that’s not quite firing at the moment. Not only were Manchester City less offensive, Liverpool didn’t allow City that much offense, with just one first half shot despite almost 58% possession.

Four games without a win ain’t great. Four games with just two goals scored – and none from Liverpool’s usual scorers – ain’t great. But Liverpool most certainly are not in a bad place at the moment. And it’s the defense that’s keeping them there.

07 October 2018

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

You want to see two sides canceling each other out? That was two sides canceling each other out.

Okay, obviously no one wants to see two sides canceling each other out. It’s boring. That’s not to say this was a boring match, but it was a very conservative match, from two sides that are usually the opposite of conservative.

It’s both recognition of Liverpool and City’s respective threats but also the overload that’s come during the last few weeks, both sides playing twice a week since returning from the last international break, with players not yet at the capacity for that since the season’s still only just started.

We got basically a full-strength side from each, but with at least one crucial change. Gomez replaced Alexander-Arnold at right-back, taller and more defensive, and capable of long throws in the attacking zone, with Lovren coming in to partner van Dijk. City were more a 4-2-3-1 than the usual 4-3-3, with Bernardo Silva forming a double pivot with Fernandinho. Both managers kept their usually very attacking fullbacks restrained, especially City, making sure there were players back for long passes over the top, toward Salah and Mahrez/Sterling respectively.

And the changes seemed to work exactly as each manager hoped. Lovren was excellent, with more than a few last ditch tackles and blocks on both Agüero and Gabriel Jesus. Bernardo Silva was similarly influential for City, leading that side in tackles. None of the dangerous wide attackers – Salah, Mané, Mahrez, or Sterling – did much of anything. None were allowed to do much of anything.

Liverpool pressed well, avoiding City’s center backs but disrupting play as soon as City entered the midfield zone. Liverpool once again had to cope with an early midfield injury, with Keïta replacing Milner in the 29th minute.

So we got a lot of turnovers in the center of the pitch, an excellent tackle or interception, clearance, lather, rinse, repeat. Teams averaging 22 and 15 shots per match respectively combined for all of 13. Possession was basically equal, shot totals were basically equal, and xG would have been basically equal if not for Manchester City’s penalty, as Mahrez skied a spot kick after van Dijk fouled Sané in the 86th minute. That’d have been a hell of a way to lose after another commendable defensive performance, so I really appreciate pulling a Charlie Adam, Riyad.

It was frenetic at times, it was fun to watch every now and then, but it was mostly very much a stalemate, and purposefully so.

Even though 0-0 certainly isn’t a bad result, this is the first time this season that Liverpool’s gotten a worse result this season than in last season’s equivalent fixture. City will arguably be more aggrieved – their best performance at Anfield in years, better chances than Liverpool created, and that missed penalty as well as two other no-calls.

In isolation, it’s fine, this is fine. Life never comes in isolation. Liverpool are now four matches without a win, failing to score in two of those four and two goals from Sturridge in the other two. Liverpool followed up what was arguably the worst attacking performance since Klopp became manager with another match where Liverpool rarely if ever looked like scoring.

We’re now four matches without a goal from Salah, Firmino, or Mané. I’ll look later but I reckon it’s safe to assume that hasn’t happened often over the last couple of seasons.

That said, Liverpool are now through this period between international breaks unbeaten in the league, with eight points out of 12 from Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), Chelsea (a), and City (h). Liverpool are level on points with both City and Chelsea, behind both only on goal difference. Joint-top, even though we’ve yet to see Liverpool at its best this season.

We’re gonna need evidence soon, but that Liverpool are here now despite the play over the last few weeks still suggests better is on its way.

06 October 2018

Liverpool v Manchester City 10.07.18

11:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a; CL) 04.10.18
3-0 Liverpool (h; CL) 04.04.18
4-3 Liverpool (h) 01.14.18
0-5 City (a) 09.27.17

Last matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Napoli (a); 1-1 Chelsea (a); 1-2 Chelsea (h)
City: 2-1 Hoffenheim (a); 2-0 Brighton (h); 3-0 Oxford (a)

Goal scorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 4; Salah 3; Firmino, Sturridge 2; Matip, Milner, Wijnaldum 1
City: Agüero 5; Sterling 4; Mahrez, B Silva, D Silva 2; Gundogan, Jesus, Laporte, Sane, Walker 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Gomez van Dijk Robertson
Wijnaldum Henderson Milner
Salah Firmino Mané


The narrative surrounding any Liverpool match often feels overwhelming and overwrought, but this’ll be even more so.

The champions against the contenders. The rebels against the evil empire. Is Liverpool ready to actually make a run at the title? This match will, of course, definitively tell us either way. Here, this is the season, right here. In the first week of October. Hold onto your butts.

So the last three games haven’t been great.

Loss, draw, loss. None impressive, and two of those with a full-strength side. The defense has been mostly impressively good, but the midfield’s unperformed – at least in regards to creativity – and the attack’s misfired. Does that mean changes tomorrow? Sturridge or Shaqiri or Fabinho starting? Maybe a 4-2-3-1, as against Southampton, even though Southampton and City are two very different opponents, a formation likely better able to create for the front three if the front three can’t create for themselves? Maybe 4-4-2, with both Firmino and Sturridge – or Firmino and Salah – up top?

Probably not. We know Liverpool’s preferred shape, we know Liverpool’s preferred players, even also knowing Liverpool’s increased strength in depth. That depth has manifested far more as options off the bench rather than rotation in starting XIs. At least guessing the midfield is a bit easier than usual. Keïta is supposedly available, but given how weird and frightening backs can be, I’d be surprised. More likely is Fabinho finally getting a run in the league.

Meanwhile, you may have heard that Manchester City are good. Draw with Wolves and Champions League loss to Lyon aside, they’ve been as brutal as ever. Most goals per game, shots per game, possession per game, and the highest pass accuracy in the league. Fewest shots allowed, lowest xG per shot, and joint-fewest goals conceded – along with Liverpool. Level on points with Liverpool, although ahead on goal difference having waxed both Huddersfield and Cardiff by five goals already this season.

Let’s go with Ederson; Walker, Kompany, Otamendi, Laporte; D Silva, Fernandinho, Gündogan; Sterling, Agüero, Sané. That seems the most familiar. But guessing City’s XI is never easy; it’s not as if City don’t have other options, whether in personnel or formation. There are Mahrez or Jesus in attack. Bernardo Silva in either midfield or attack. Both Mendy and de Bruyne could return from injury, almost certainly hosed down with horse placenta by some shady "doctor" during the week. 3-5-2 is possible if Mendy’s fit; 4-4-2 is possible with both Agüero and Jesus up front.

Last season’s matches with Manchester City were wild, exactly what blitzkrieg heavy metal football should be. Three of the four were wild in a good way, a 4-3 league win that was literally the perfect encapsulation of last season’s Liverpool and those two dramatic Champions League victories. The other match, as I suspect you remember, was wild in a very bad way. Manchester City, so dominant in the league, were beaten three out of four times by this Liverpool side.

It will be hard for Liverpool to replicate that. It is up to Liverpool to replicate that.

04 October 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Napoli

Previous Match Infographics: Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Leicester (a), Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

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

So, yeah, none of us want to relive that.

That's about as bad as it's gotten since Klopp became manager. There have been worse results. There have been worse performances, at least in Klopp's first season. But this was about as bad as it gets, especially considering how the side's evolved since 2015-16 and especially since the front three has become that front three.

Yesterday’s match at Napoli saw the fewest Liverpool shots since Klopp became manager. The lowest Expected Goals total since Klopp became manager. The only time we haven't seen either a shot on-target or even a shot from inside the box since Klopp became manager.

And Liverpool still nearly came away with a point if not for a last-second goal, Mertens pulling van Dijk out wide, Callejon getting behind Robertson, and Gomez not quite quick enough to stay with Insigne. The defense finally, truly lost its shape without being able to recover. Alisson had saved a clear-cut chance just minutes before, two fingertips pushing Mertens’ shot onto the crossbar. He couldn’t save Liverpool a second time.

So that sucked. A bunch. So this is gonna be short.

There's more than enough blame to go around. The worst performance from a front three that's been struggling surprisingly often this season. A lack of rotation in between the autumn international breaks potentially catching up to the side. That Napoli is a difficult place to travel to, that Ancelotti's a difficult manager to face in Europe, that Liverpool might have been already thinking about Sunday's match against Manchester City.

Lots went wrong, and a lot of it we can hope is a one-off.

I'm gonna briefly focus on the midfield.

Yikes. 17 passes from Henderson, Milner, Wijnaldum and Keïta to Firmino, Salah, and Mané. Just one into the penalty box. Just five into the final third. No chances created.

Compare that to recent away matches at Chelsea and Tottenham. Liverpool’s midfielders – Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner, and Keïta – completed 33 passes to the attackers – Firmino, Salah, Mane, and Shaqiri. Multiple came in both the penalty box and final third, and Milner created a clear-cut chance for Firmino. Similar goes for the Spurs game, with 28 passes from Liverpool’s midfielders to Liverpool’s attackers, and both Milner and Wijnaldum created chances for Mané.

I know these aren’t dramatically large margins. And we knew that Liverpool’s midfielders weren’t the most creative going into both the season and match. Milner had 11 assists last season, but the majority came from set plays; the other midfielders with the most assists last season were Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coutinho, and Emre Can and, well.

Yesterday might have gone differently had Keïta not gone off in the 19th minute with a freaky frightening back injury, the midfielder most likely to break through Napoli lines. Regardless, this highlights a potential problem, especially when the front three aren’t doing all those wonderful front three things.

The first half was helter skelter, with both sides looking for long balls with the center of the pitch compact as all get out. The second half saw Napoli increasingly turn the screws, both as Liverpool tired and as substitutions – Verdi for Fabian, increasing the doubled-up pressure on Alexander-Arnold, and Mertens for Milik, a far more mobile player able to create space for Insigne – improved the home side.

Liverpool again defended well, but that’s about all Liverpool did well as the front three and midfield increasingly flailed and failed, and all that Napoli pressure finally bore fruit. At about the worst possible time.

Liverpool are now winless in three. The League Cup loss to Chelsea still only matters because I’m mad that Liverpool conceded a lead late on. The league draw at Chelsea still feels like a point gained rather than two lost. But this loss, coming to a late goal, exacerbates the problems and the fears from the previous two results even more.

Chickens haven’t quite come home to roost, but they’re circling the coop.

City on Sunday.