02 January 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Burnley

Previous Match Infographics: Leicester (a), Swansea (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (a), West Brom (h), Everton (h), Spartak Moscow (h), Brighton (a), Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

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

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

These last two games might have been my favorites from the current 16-match unbeaten streak.

48 hours after a comeback win against Leicester, Liverpool's first of the season after conceding first, with Salah's winner the latest game-deciding Liverpool goal to that point, Liverpool have now beaten Burnley thanks to the latest game-winner goal since Sadio Mané beat Everton with a 94th minute strike in December 2016.

Liverpool beat Burnley despite a fairly dismal attacking performance, against a side that's unbelievably good at closing passing lanes in their own half and preventing big chances. Liverpool beat Burnley despite conceding an equalizer in the 86th minute, after finally breaking the deadlock in the 61st, what looked to be yet another 1-1 draw after scoring first and yet another late goal conceded. Liverpool beat Burnley despite Burnley being Burnley, a side that's flummoxed Liverpool multiple times under Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool beat Burnley despite making seven changes to the starting XI. Liverpool beat Burnley without Salah, Coutinho, and Firmino starting – players responsible for 51 of the 77 goals scored before yesterday's game.

We had a perfectly fine narrative after 86 minutes. It's not great, Burnley are mostly doing what Burnley want to do, but Liverpool's limited their chances as well and then the most talented attacker in a match where most of the talented attacking players have been left out goes and does something brilliant. And it's a talented attacker who's not been at his best of late. That certainly would have sufficed.

But then we go and get the narrative we'd tried to push past throughout this season. Liverpool don't take chances to extend a narrow lead and then concede at 1-0. Liverpool concede from a cross (at least it wasn't a set play?), with Joe Gomez ball-watching as an individual scapegoat. And Liverpool concede said equalizer late in the match, as against Watford, Sevilla, Chelsea, and Everton.

Son of a.

But wait! A Liverpool set play! And there's Lovren and there's *checks again* Klavan? And it's a winner? In the 94th minute?

That's an even better narrative. And, considering Watford, Sevilla, Chelsea, Everton, as well as Burnley at home and Spartak away and Newcastle and all the other regrettable draws, that's absolutely progress and absolutely welcomed.

Welcome to 2018.

Neither this nor Leicester was especially fun to watch. Almost the opposite. They certainly haven't been Southampton, Stoke, Brighton, Spartak, Bournemouth levels of comfortable, nor have Liverpool hit the heights seen in draws at Sevilla and Arsenal.

Games like that rarely happen during the Boxing Day to New Year's Day stretch, especially by the end of it.

Only one Premier League side has strolled to victory in the last two matchdays: Chelsea's 5-0 win over Stoke on Saturday. Stoke are incredibly bad and I have no idea how Mark Hughes hasn't been fired yet. Only two sides have scored three or more goals: Chelsea in the aforementioned romp and Leicester against Huddersfield yesterday, with all three goals in the second half as Huddersfield fell apart.

You win these games by grinding. And Liverpool have rarely been good at grinding. Almost all of the grinding matches this season have ended in disappointment: 1-1 v Burnley, 1-1 at Newcastle, 0-0 v United, 1-1 v Chelsea, 1-1 v Everton, 0-0 v West Brom. Only the early-season 1-0 win at Crystal Palace was a huff, puff, toil, and trouble late-earned victory.

Until this week.

And these two wins have come at the end of a simply brutal stretch, with 13 matches over 44 days since the last international break.

If you go back three more weeks – everything after the Tottenham debacle – you can add three more wins and make the underlying stats look even gaudier. But the international break seems a better dividing line, given how it's been at least two matches a week, sometimes more, since that respite for at least a few of the players.

Liverpool have used 23 different players over these 13 games. 18 of them played at least 360 minutes, only 11 played more than 600, only eight more than 800 – Mignolet, Lovren, Klavan, Wijnaldum, Coutinho, Salah, Firmino, and Gomez. We've never seen the same starting XI over these 13 games. Salah made the most consecutive starts, with eight, but was taken off as a substitute in five of those matches. He's the only front-six player to make more than five consecutive starts during this stretch – which Firmino and Coutinho both did – while Lovren started seven consecutive and both Klavan and Robertson six.

And I reiterate. Liverpool were unbeaten during this 13-match stretch over 44 days, are unbeaten in their last 16 matches all together, and we regret every single one of those five draws.

Liverpool have done it with Henderson, Matip, Moreno, Sturridge, and Clyne – Remember him? He played the most minutes last season. – absent for stretches. Coutinho and Salah have also missed at least one game through injury. Lallana's just now returning from months absent.

21-year-old Joe Gomez and 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold have had to become crucial players in defense. Emre Can, for all he's been criticized and even though he's probably leaving on a free next summer, was monstrous over the last two games, even if not at his best. It is incredibly difficult to play that role twice in two days, and somehow he seemed to get better as the match went on in both. Not only were they involved in yesterday's winner, but Lovren and Klavan have been near faultless in the last three matches, with each – along with Matip, who was less so against Leicester – starting two of the last three.

It has been a masterful use of the squad and of rotation by a manager we criticized for not doing similar over the previous two winters. Because Liverpool have built a far better, and far deeper, squad this season.

Incidentally, this is only the second Premier League win in January that we've seen since Klopp became manager. The other was the 5-4 bananas victory at Norwich at the end of January 2016. Liverpool lost its first New Year's game under Klopp – 0-2 at West Ham – and drew last season's, an infinitely regrettable 2-2 draw with eventually relegated Sunderland. Liverpool's January record in the previous two seasons is 1W-4D-3L in the league and 4W-7D-7L in all competitions, with the other wins over Stoke (League Cup semi-final), Exeter (FA Cup replay) and Plymouth (FA Cup replay). That's 0.88 points-per-game in the league and 1.06 per game in all competitions (yes, yes, if all those games actually counted for points).

Admittedly, January is nowhere near over. Liverpool have had nine matches in January in the previous two seasons. At most, they'll have seven this month, including yesterday's, and that's only if Liverpool go to a replay against Everton but then proceed to the next round.

There is still a long way to go. It is, after, only January, and the very beginning of it. Fixture congestion will pick back up in mid-February when the Champions League resumes, especially if Liverpool progress in the FA Cup. There are still games to play against four of the five other teams in the top six.

But these last 13 games were the raw, red meat of the schedule. This was where Liverpool could slip up, this was were Liverpool had slipped up in the last two seasons. And they've navigated it unbeaten. They've navigated it with eight wins and five draws, and all five of those draws could easily have been wins. They've opened a slightly larger gap over fifth and sixth, and they've slightly closed the gap to second and third.

They've done it with a few riotous wins. And now, in the last two matches, they've done it with little more than an unwillingness to give up when not at their best.

We needed to see Liverpool capable of that. We especially needed to see Liverpool capable of that with key players absent. And we did, during the busiest time of the season.

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