19 March 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 5-0 Watford

Previous Match Infographics: United (a), Porto (h), Newcastle (h), West Ham (h), Porto (a), Southampton (a), Tottenham (h), Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), 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. 

I mean, there's not a lot to say when Mohamed Salah has a game like that.

Sure, if it finishes 3-0 – which looked a little more than likely by the 75th minute – we're talking about another routine win. You know, one of Liverpool's "routine" wins. Liverpool gets the early goal. Liverpool struggles for a little bit: Can gets injured, Watford press higher up the pitch, Henderson gives the ball away in a dangerous position a couple of times, Karius saves a clear-cut chance when Richarlison's header over Gomez is too close to the keeper. But then Liverpool's attack gets another. And then another.

As against Southampton, Stoke, Huddersfield, etc. An untested because they-wouldn't-allow-themselves-to-be-tested defense, a competent midfield, and that attack, which remains very good and has made these matches against the bottom half of the division much less worrisome than they were in the previous two seasons. Liverpool's rarely at its best, but Liverpool's also never troubled, and Liverpool's more than thorough enough at the sharp end to score multiple times. Fewer Liverpool shots than we've become accustomed to at Anfield, but the ones they've taken have been good shots, they've been in the Danger Zone, and they've gone in, and that's good enough.

Lather, rinse, repeat. All that would have been fine with me.

But then Mohamed Salah went and scored two more goals in the final 15 minutes and all hell breaks loose and the world's finally realizing what we've known for a few months. Mohamed Salah has been the best player in the Premier League this season. He's probably one of the five best in the world at the moment.

It's funny what a couple of dead rubber extra goals does.

Here are the Liverpool players who have scored 4 or more goals in a league match since Liverpool's return to the First Division in 1962-63.

• Roger Hunt (4), 6-1 v Stoke in 1963-64
• Ian Rush (4), 5-0 at Everton in 1982-83
• Ian Rush (5), 6-0 v Luton Town in 1983-84
• Ian Rush (4), 5-0 v Coventry in 1983-84
• Robbie Fowler (4), 5-2 v Bolton in 1995-96
• Robbie Fowler (4), 5-1 v Boro in 1996-97
• Michael Owen (4), 5-1 v Forest in 1998-99
• Michael Owen (4), 6-0 at West Brom in 2002-03
• Luis Suarez (4), 5-1 v Norwich in 2013-14
• Mohamed Salah (4), 5-0 v Watford in 2017-18

That's it. It's happened 10 times, from six different players, in 55 years.

Since being held scoreless against West Brom on December 13, Liverpool have scored at least twice in nine of the ten home games, the only exception the waste-of-90-minutes second leg against Porto, a match where Liverpool already had a five-goal lead. This is Anfield, indeed.

But, of course, it's not just Salah, even if this match highlighted to everyone just how damn good he's been this season. Firmino adds another goal, a stupidly fun acrobatic flick with the back of his trailing leg. And Sadio Mané tallies two assists and a hockey assist, leading the side in chances created (at least jointly) for the fourth time in the last nine matches.

His contributions for the first two goals were especially telling.

It's not just Firmino who drops deep to link midfield and attack.

Mané drifts central and drops into the hole in the build-up for both. For the first, he turns away from the midfielder who's chased to cover him, then immediately looks for and finds Salah in space. The movement for the second's even more impressive: he's wide open, because he's cheated into the area just vacated by Firmino, and every Watford defender's either gone with Firmino or is watching the ball. Mané's completely open as he plays in Robertson on the move, perfectly between the wing-back and wide center-back, before two Watford midfielders can recover as they realize what's about to happen.

I'm not saying he's replacing Coutinho. But both of those plays, especially for the second goal, are things that Coutinho used to do for Liverpool.

Mané's creation numbers aren't vastly different than last season. He's averaging around 0.25 more key passes per 90 league minutes than last season. But he's already tallied two more assists than last season, in 500 fewer minutes. Last season, Mané was often the primary recipient of passes like these. But now Liverpool have Firmino, in vastly better scoring form. And Liverpool have Mohamed Salah. And Mané, rather than trailing along in their wake, has added more to his own game, not only almost matching last season's scoring totals, but with more purpose and output in the build-up to all those wonderful, wonderful Liverpool goals.

So we've got Mané, increasingly influential in more areas of the attack. We've got Firmino, doing all the Firmino: tracking back and pressing and dropping deep and terrorizing defenders and doing Brazilian things in front of goal.

We've got Liverpool's midfield, steady on. Rarely inspirational, sometimes not creative enough, but hassling and harrying when out of possession and quietly doing the often-unnoticed necessary little things in possession, calm and collected except for a couple of mid-match moments from Henderson.

We've got Liverpool's defense, again competent enough; sure, they weren't playing the most threatening of attacks, but they limited chances as per usual, and kept yet another clean sheet.

Via Andrew Beasley, in the previous link:
With their No. 11 in such devastating form, Liverpool’s defensive record is passing under the radar. Their clean sheet here means they’ve had 18 shutouts in their last 38 league games. They’ve also only conceded 37 goals in that period.

Both of these are records for Klopp in his time at Liverpool. Many will point to the arrival of Virgil van Dijk, and Karius establishing himself in goal. They have helped, but the improved defensive trends have been there for a while now.

And, as you may have noticed, we've got Mohamed Salah.

17 March 2018

Liverpool 5-0 Watford

Salah 4' 43' 77' 85'
Firmino 49'

I think Mohamed Salah took offense at last week's performance and result.

Salah's long been threatening to do this to some poor opponent. We've seen a ton of one- or two-goal games, but no hat-tricks. It's been the consistency rather than the flurries, scoring in most games, only going two sucessive league games without scoring once this season.

Today we got the flurry, in the snow flurries.

Four Salah shots, four Salah goals.

Four minutes in, seating both Prödl and Britos before opening the scoring; everyone in the universe expects Salah to cut onto his left so he drags back to his right to lose both defenders then beats Karnezis for only his fourth right-footed goal of the season.

43 minutes in, tapping in Robertson's inch-perfect cross, again with that right foot.

77 minutes in, there are literally six Watford defenders watching nothing but Salah, yet he still somehow dribbles onto his left, into the center of the box, and slips a shot under Karnezis while falling down.

85 minutes in, he unselfishly looks to set up Danny Ings with an unbelievable first-time pass on one of those Liverpool-are-in-complete-control-and-we're-gonna-blitz-you-on-the-break counters, then is first to the rebound when Karnezis rudely saves Ings' shot.

A goal from his pace and dribbling when released against a retreating backline. A goal from a tap-in thanks to Robertson's cross and his speed to get behind defenders. A goal from his footwork and strength when surrounded in the box. A goal from his persistence and unwillingness to even think about stopping, first to a loose ball when there might be a minute chance of scoring, even if it's the 85th minute and he's already got the first league hat-trick for Liverpool since Klopp became manager.

Oh, and he added the assist for Liverpool's third, a byline cross for Firmino's point-blank acrobatic back-calf flick. Now we know why Bobby's been practicing those karate kicks.

Mohamed Salah now has 28 league goals for the season. Only Luis Suarez has scored more for Liverpool in a Premier League campaign.

Since 1962-63, only three Liverpool players have scored more than Mohamed Salah's 36 goals so far in all competitions: Roger Hunt with 37 in 1964-65, and Ian Rush with 40 and 47 in 1986-87 and 1983-84.

Mohamed Salah is only three goals away from tying the mark for most goals in a Premier League season, set by Shearer in 1995-96, Cristiano in 2007-08, and Suarez in 2013-14. He's got seven games left.

Mohamed Salah has scored in 20 different Premier League games this season. He's the first Liverpool player to do so.

Mohamed Salah is the first player this season to be involved in five goals in one Premier League match.

And Mohamed Salah has now scored more league goals than West Brom, Huddersfield, Swansea, and Burnley, and is level with Brighton. Otherwise known as "a quarter of the league."

I have long since run out of superlatives. We're gonna have to start making up new words.

Look, we all know it's not a one-man game. Firmino scored again, surpassing his personal best for most goals in a season. Mané tallied two assists. Liverpool's midfield controlled proceedings, and despite Can needing to go off in the 27th minute through injury – the only blight on today's proceedings. Robertson again demonstrated why he's become a cult hero, not only with his assist but also his never-ending running up and down the length of the flank he's made his own. Six months ago, I'd have been terrified of long balls and set plays with a lump like Troy Deeney leading the line and with tricky players like Pereyra and Richarlison lurking around. I mean, y'all probably still remember the first match of this season. Yet they rarely had a sniff at Liverpool's goal, the closest coming when Pereyra's I'm-trying-to-cross-this free kick pinged off the crossbar.

Liverpool have now scored three-or-more goals in 15 of their 31 league games this season – almost exactly half.

This team is good. This attack is really good. Minor setbacks aside, this team is doing what it needs to do to reach its targets for the season. But Mohamed Salah is absolutely the superstar.

16 March 2018

Liverpool v Watford 03.17.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-3 (a) 08.12.17
1-0 Liverpool (a) 05.01.17
6-1 Liverpool (h) 11.06.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 05.08.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 United (a); 0-0 Porto (h); 2-0 Newcastle (h)
Watford: 0-3 Arsenal (a); 1-0 West Brom (h); 1-0 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 24; Firmino 13; Mané 8; Coutinho 7; Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain 3; Sturridge 2; Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, Klavan, Lovren, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Watford: Doucoure 7; Deeney, Richarlison 5; Gray 4; Janmaat 3; Hughes, Kabasele, Pereyra 2; Britos, Capoue, Carrillo, Cleverley, Deulofeu, Okaka, Wague 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Lovren van Dijk Robertson
Alex O-C Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Mané

Thanks to the FA Cup, none of Liverpool's nearest rivals play this weekend. Tottenham, Chelsea, and United are still in the competition, while City and Arsenal were scheduled to play teams still in the competition.

Time to put some points on the board.

The lineup questions have become routine. The composition of the midfield, Matip or Lovren partnering van Dijk. It's not as if rotation's an issue; Liverpool don't have another match until March 31 because of an international break before we get into a super fun Palace-City-Everton-City run over 12 days. It's not as if injuries are an issue; only Woodburn's assuredly out, while it's still probably too early for Clyne to make his return.

Maybe we get a fit-again Wijnaldum in place of Oxlade-Chamberlain or Can. Maybe we get Matip preferred to Lovren after last Saturday's issues. Maybe Gomez instead of Alexander-Arnold for similar reasons. But it seems easiest to guess what's seemingly become Liverpool's "preferred XI."

And it shouldn't matter if Liverpool do what Liverpool are capable of doing. If Liverpool respond to last Saturday's setback in the correct, and incredibly vicious, manner.

There seems an easy calculus with Watford. Watford are yet to lose at home in 2018, Watford are yet to win away in 2018. Watford haven't won away since a 3-0 victory over Newcastle back in November, and have drawn just once away during that span – a 0-0 at Stoke in Javi Gracia's first match. Watford have conceded at least two goals in four of their last five league games, against Arsenal, West Ham, Stoke, Leicester, and City. Liverpool's attack is better than four of those teams, and I guess we'll find out the fifth twice and for all next month.

Most importantly for this time of year, at least from Watford's perspective, Watford are almost certainly safe. 10th place, nine points and goal difference outside the relegation zone.

Even though Watford lost 0-3 at Arsenal a week ago, it's hard to see a much different XI. They've too many absentees – Kabasale, Cleverley, Chalobah, Deulofeu, Kaboul, and Wague are all out. So it'd be Karnezis; Janmaat, Prödl, Mariappa, Holebas; Doucoure, Capoue; Femenia, Pereyra, Richarlison; Deeney.

The only alternatives seem to be Andre Carrillo on the right rather than Kiko Femenia – who's ostensibly a right back – and Will Hughes in midfield. Okaka and Gray are options up front, but it's hard to see Watford leaving out Troy Deeney and it's hard to see Watford playing 4-4-2. That Cathcart's back from injury maybe means that Watford could play three at the back, with either Cathcart or Britos joining Mariappa and Prödl; Gracia used that formation in both the 4-1 win over Chelsea and 0-2 loss at West Ham, but that formation also matched that which both Chelsea and West Ham deployed.

But we also can't forget the last time these sides spoke. Opening day, and almost a perfect encapsulation of the season to follow. Liverpool, rightly favored, fall behind early to a set play. Liverpool equalize, but concede again almost immediately, unnecessarily, when the ball unluckily ricochets off two Liverpool players to an opposition attacker. But then Liverpool are good! But then Liverpool's attack fires to life! All three of Liverpool's front three score in the first match of the season, something they'd go on to do five more times so far this season. But then Liverpool slowly retreat. And then Liverpool concede a last minute equalizer that's both offside and with Mignolet probably fouled. Helter and skelter and heart attacks and injustice and Liverpool.

But it's "almost a perfect encapsulation." Because while we've seen some of the issues all season long, we've seen far fewer than in this game, far fewer than last season, and far fewer as the season's gone on – last week notwithstanding. And we've seen a vastly more potent attack, even more firepower than that shown on August 12. We've seen drama, but Liverpool have usually been on the correct end of said drama, even if that drama still seems like it's going to kill us all in the process.

We know what Liverpool can do. Liverpool know what Liverpool have to do. What the opposition do shouldn't matter.

12 March 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

Previous Match Infographics: Porto (h), Newcastle (h), West Ham (h), Porto (a), Southampton (a), Tottenham (h), Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), 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. 

Stop Liverpool's front three, stop Liverpool.

To be fair, that's easier said than done. But United did.

I'll first point to the above Tackles and Interceptions chalkboard. That thick black line just outside United's penalty box. Yikes. Tackles on Salah's side – he was dispossessed seven times this match, more than double his season average – and interceptions on the left and central. Also known as "the passes trying to find Firmino, Salah, and Mané."

How well United did in silencing Salah, given the season he's had, remains the most impressive. Just one shot – in injury time, from a scrambled second-ball set play, ballooned over. One key pass – a corner for van Dijk's off-target header in the 48th minute. Just one attempted dribble, which was unsuccessful.

Compare Salah's touches in this match to that against United in October, which wasn't even anywhere near one of his best performances. Far fewer, far deeper. Salah touched the ball in United's box just three times on Saturday: a mis-control in the 49th minute, an unsuccessful layoff pass in the 55th, and the aforementioned off-target shot deep into added time.

But it's not as if Salah was the only disappointment. And it's not as if Salah hasn't carried Liverpool to multiple victories already this season. But when Liverpool's front three aren't firing, can't fire, Liverpool become excessively reliant on set plays and shots from distance, and that's not usually a recipe for beating Manchester United.

United, however, did not necessarily need Liverpool's help in shutting down Liverpool's attack. Click on the embedded tweet below for some "highlights" in the subsequent thread.

Seriously, go watch all the videos in that thread. I am not responsible for the things you break or family/friends/coworkers/neighbors you frighten by shouting.

It's an uncharacteristically bad showing from a usually terrifying attack, but also one hindered by a defense who's big, talented, and very resilient in a low block. It can be both. And both is bad.

And both is really bad when you do bad at the other end of the pitch. I am, of course, also annoyed about the goals conceded.

One screenshot almost totally suffices.

Lovren does not need to get this tight to Lukaku. Even if Lukaku wins an unchallenged header, Lovren's at least another defender there to mark the second ball rather than completely taken out of the play. A split-second hesitation from van Dijk means he's on the back foot when trying to get back to help. And Alexander-Arnold's obviously the most culpable, watching the ball just long enough to allow Rashford to get goal side.

But Liverpool should also not be three v three from a goal kick situation. It's asking for trouble, regardless of whether Lukaku flicks on perfectly for Rashford or just gets the ball further forward. Lovren needs to better recognize the situation, but so does Liverpool's midfield.

Despite the similarities with United's opener, we can call the second goal at least as much lucky as good. Sure, Lovren's again unnecessarily tight to Lukaku and again beaten in the air. Sure, Alexander-Arnold's again not in the best position to mark Rashford. But the goal happens because van Dijk's successful tackle on Mata somehow falls directly to Rashford. Shit happens, even if it sometimes seems to disproportionally happen to Liverpool.

It's still more about what happened at United's end of the pitch rather than Liverpool's.

I would also like to complain about the time that this game took place. Can we can 7:30am kickoffs yet?

Liverpool's goals per game average in all of Klopp's matches is 2.01. Goals conceded per game is 1.08 – a full goal better than in these matches, although that game against City earlier this season makes the average a fair bit worse. And Klopp's points per game mark (if every match counted for points) is 1.85.

Maybe it's coincidence. Or maybe there something about Liverpool's usual training time that screws up planning, fitness, etc. when Liverpool have to kick off early.

Sure, it's only 12 matches – 11 in the Premier League. Over almost three full seasons. But in the four played this season, Liverpool have taken just two points. I'm still mad about getting just a point at Watford and against United. I'm still mad Liverpool didn't get a point from this match.

But, yes, this is only one match. Even if it's against the Evil Empire. Even if the result sees Liverpool fall to fourth, five points behind United and with Tottenham leapfrogging into third after yesterday's win at Bournemouth.

Because there are still eight league matches left. And what happens in them from here remains up to Liverpool.

10 March 2018

Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

Rashford 14' 24'
Bailly OG 68'

Away games against Liverpool's peers have not gone well this season. At least we've got complaining about the referee to mitigate the tire fire that was the first half. Because Liverpool absolutely got Mourinhoed in the first half.

Jose Mourinho's top-six strategy is well-known. Kill the game in your defensive half and try to exploit the main weakness you can find in the opposition's half. And oh boy did they.

14th minute. De Gea hoof. Lukaku beats Lovren in the air, with Lovren way too tight. Lukaku heads on for Rashford, in behind Alexander-Arnold. Alexander-Arnold overruns when retreating. Rashford's wide open to beat Karius.

24th minute. De Gea hoof. Lukaku beats Lovren in the air, with Lovren way too tight. Lukaku controls, tries to find Mata. Van Dijk tackles, but it falls perfectly for Rashford, who's wide open as Alexander-Arnold overruns when retreating.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

And to make matters that much more fun, van Dijk had shouldered a corner just wide from five yards out less than minute before United's second. Football's fine margins, etc.

So not only did Liverpool get Mourinhoed, we got a game that began almost exactly how Liverpool's 1-4 loss at Tottenham began. That's not a good place to start from. Liverpool had gone down 0-2 in 13 previous games under Klopp. They won one – I suspect you remember Borussia Dortmund – and lost 12.

Unlike the match at Tottenham, it at least did not get worse. Liverpool at least began doing a marginally better job controlling those situations. But that's also the difference between Pochettino's Tottenham and Mourinho's United.

Tottenham – like Liverpool in those positions – will continue to attack. Manchester United will absolutely destroy any semblance of a football match.

They'll destroy it with eight or nine men behind the ball. They'll destroy it with those midfield monsters planted in the middle of the defensive third: 6'4" Scott McTominay and 6'4" Nemanja Matic. They'll destroy it with the darkest of arts: time-wasting on throw-ins and goal kicks, sly fouls when the referee's not looking and dives when he is, faking injuries with Liverpool in possession in the final third then booting the dead ball to Liverpool's goalkeeper to reset the defense.

It'd be awe-inspiring if it wasn't so maddening to watch at the best of times and mass murder-inducing when your side's got to play against it.

But not only did it not get worse for Liverpool, it actually got better in the second half. If "righteous indignation" and "unexpected but ultimately unfulfilled optimism" is better than "I would like to fire these Liverpool players into the sun." I can go either way, honestly.

We have complained about the referees a lot this season. I imagine every team complains about the referee as often. I am still going to complain about the referees some more.

You should not expect to get much at Old Trafford, but you still expect things like "Young's pulling Salah back there" and "that hit Valencia's arm" and "Fellaini got Mané's leg there" to be called when those things happen inside the penalty box. Maybe at least one?

It does not help that the referee was Craig Pawson. You may remember him from such films as "Calvert-Lewin Gets A Penalty" and "Liverpool v West Brom: The Case For VAR."

It does not help that Liverpool had somehow gotten back into the game thanks to Eric Bailly, an incredible own goal from Mané's byline cross in the 68th minute, hilariously followed by Bailly pretending to be injured for the next two minutes out of embarrassment.

It does not help that Liverpool did not find some way to get an equalizer, despite an egregious amount of possession, despite moments where we actually, stupidly thought they might, unable to overcome the two-goal deficit they dug their way into. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, from almost all involved.

But for the misplaced optimism following Liverpool's goal, for all the complaints about the referee and decisions or moments that could have gone the other way, the grand total of Liverpool's attack was the own goal, three penalty shouts, and a couple of headers from 13 corners. From one of the best attacks in Europe.

Salah was supremely stifled, Firmino often had to drop deep to try to start a meaningful move, and we got one of those "I've got too much time on the ball to think about what I'm gonna do and that often ends badly" Mané games.

Liverpool put just two of 14 shots on-target. United blocked half of Liverpool's shots. All five of Liverpool's in-box shots came from set plays. Liverpool have now scored twice in four matches against Mourinho's Manchester United: a penalty and an own goal.

Liverpool failed in a couple of decisive moments and were punished for it. Again. For the fourth time in four matches away at a top-six rival. And Liverpool got Mourinhoed. Again.

09 March 2018

Liverpool at Manchester United 03.10.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 10.14.17
1-1 (a) 01.15.17
0-0 (h) 10.17.16
1-1 (a; Europa League) 03.17.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Porto (h); 2-0 Newcastle (h); 4-1 West Ham (h)
United: 3-2 Palace (a); 2-1 Chelsea (h); 0-0 Sevilla (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 24; Firmino 13; Mané 8; Coutinho 7; Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain 3; Sturridge 2; Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, Klavan, Lovren, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
United: Lukaku 14; Martial 9; Lingard 8; Rashford 4; Fellaini, Mata, Pogba, Valencia 3; Smalling, Young 2; Alexis, Bailly, Matic, Mkhitaryan 1

Referee: Craig Pawson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Lovren van Dijk Robertson
Alex O-C Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Mané

I still don't like this fixture, but I'm not afraid of this fixture.

I used to be. Maybe I should still be. There's only one other fixture that causes as much pain with a Liverpool setback – the city rivals. For all the complaints, and sometimes mediocre football, there are still a lot of good players at Manchester United, especially up front and in goal. Few managers can kill a match as thoroughly as Manchester United's.

But it's hard to fear Jose Mourinho's Manchester United.

And it's easy to fear Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool.

Mourinho's United take the fewest shots per match in the top six. They allow the most shots in the top six. They have the least possession. But only City and Liverpool have scored more goals. But only City have conceded fewer. But United have a better record in top-six matches that Liverpool, with home wins over Tottenham and Chelsea, even if they've scored fewer than half the goals that Liverpool have in top-six matches. But United are still second, ahead of Liverpool by two points.

Maybe I should still be afraid.

We're all but certain what Liverpool's XI will look like. The only questions are the usual: can Henderson play three games in a week – especially after suffering a dead leg against Porto – or will the midfield be Can, Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain instead? Will Lovren or Matip partner van Dijk?

United's XI isn't that hard to guess either, with Herrera, Blind, and Jones out injured, while Fellaini's only just returned and will probably be on the bench at best. De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Young; McTominay, Matic, Pogba; Lingard, Lukaku, Alexis. Maybe it's Rashford, Mata, or Martial in place of Lingard. With Fellaini, Blind, and Herrera out, it's hard to see a different midfield; Mata's a possibility in the three, but starting both he and Pogba would be very un-Mourinho.

Almost every match between Klopp's Liverpool and Mourinho's United has followed the same pattern. Mourinho sets up his side to nullify, De Gea stands on his head, Liverpool only draw. United remain the only Premier League side that Klopp's yet to beat in a league match. Newcastle, and Rafa Benitez, shared that honor just a few weeks ago. They don't anymore.

Liverpool haven't drawn consecutive matches since the beginning of December. Liverpool have followed previous 0-0 draws this season with 4-0 and 7-0 wins. If Liverpool press as Liverpool can press, score as Liverpool can score, and defend as they have done in the last few matches, Liverpool should win.

Liverpool are the more exciting side. Liverpool, at their best, are the better side, no matter what the table currently says. So change the table. And change the narrative.

07 March 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Porto

Previous Match Infographics: Newcastle (h), West Ham (h), Porto (a), Southampton (a), Tottenham (h), Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), 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.)

Let's be honest. There's not a lot to write about here. Liverpool were up by five goals after the first leg, and Porto were happy to not lose by more than five goals on aggregate.

It was something that Liverpool matches rarely are. It was boring, from almost start to finish.

And boring was exactly what Liverpool needed. Boring, for once, is good.

It wasn't a complete waste of 90 minutes.

Firmino and Mané started – playing 61 and 73 minutes respectively – with Salah coming off the bench for the latter. You can complain about all three playing in a dead rubber but given how the side's fitness has been this season – especially compared to last – I'm more than willing to give the staff the benefit of the doubt here. Keep 'em hungry.

There were six players in the starting XI likely to feature in Saturday's side at Manchester United. But Lallana, Moreno, and Gomez all made needed starts, with Ings also getting half an hour off the bench.

Despite playing at half-pace, Liverpool had three clear-cut chances – three more than Porto had in 180 minutes – and also hit the woodwork.

Liverpool still ran a lot – the 115.1km covered as a team was Liverpool's second-highest total in the Champions League this season, behind the 116.5km at Sevilla.

Liverpool were still fairly Liverpool, just with a firm grasp on the handbrake. Because Liverpool were so potent in the first leg, what happened here almost didn't matter.

Yes, yes, game state, but still. You over-performed Expected Goals by a healthy margin. You held Porto scoreless over two legs. You held Porto to around 0.556 xG per shot, which is an insanely low total. Liverpool scored more goals in 60 minutes in the first leg than Porto had shots on-target in both legs.

It was a good 180 minutes against good opposition, because of a great first 90 minutes in Portugal. It was exactly the way Liverpool needed to navigate its first Champions League knockout tie since 2009.

I'm sure you've seen "this was Liverpool's eighth Champions League game at Anfield this decade." That's eight games in eight years. It's almost embarrassing.

The Champions League because the "Champions League" in 1992. 25 years ago. This is the sixth time Liverpool will be in the quarterfinals. 2001-02, 2004-05, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, and now 2017-18. That doesn't seem like many appearances. But this is also only the 10th time Liverpool have been in the Champions League. Six quarterfinals in ten appearances. Two finals, one trophy.

I ain't saying this stage of the competition is Liverpool's birthright, but it's kind of Liverpool's birthright. This is where Liverpool belong. And it's long past time that Liverpool reestablish that.

05 March 2018

Liverpool v Porto 03.06.18

Liverpool lead 5-0 on aggregate

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

Group Stage results:
Liverpool: 7-0 Spartak (h); 3-3 Sevilla (a); 3-0 Maribor (h); 7-0 Maribor (a); 1-1 Spartak (a); 2-2 Sevilla (h)
Porto: 5-2 Monaco (h); 1-1 Besiktas (a); 3-1 RB Leipzig (h); 2-3 RB Leipzig (a); 3-0 Monaco (a); 1-3 Besiktas (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Newcastle (h); 4-1 West Ham (a); 5-0 Porto (a)
Porto: 2-1 Sporting (h); 5-1 Portimonense (a); 3-1 Estoril (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Firmino 8; Salah 7; Mané 6; Coutinho 5; Can 3; Alexander-Arnold 2; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sturridge 1
Porto: Aboubakar 5; Brahimi, Danilo, Felipe, Herrera, Layon, Marcano, M Pereira, Telles, Tiquinho 1

Referee: Felix Zwayer (GER)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren van Dijk Moreno
Lallana Can Milner
Mané Ings Alex O-C

Klopp's told white lies in press conferences before. "Van Dijk won't start" before Everton remains my favorite. But it's still hard to take him much further than face value.

Still, you'd think we'd see more than "one, two, three" changes when Liverpool go into this with a 5-0 lead. Especially with a trip to Manchester United on Saturday.

The above guess has five changes from the XI against Newcastle. Gomez and Moreno starting for the first time in more than a month, Lallana's third start of the season, Ings' first start under Jürgen Klopp, Milner coming back into the competition where he's thrived, the leading assist provider in the Champions League this season. It seems an opportunity for all of those players, who could well be needed during the run-in.

But basically, I just want to see Firmino and Salah get a game off. Firmino's started the last 10 in a row, Salah the last nine, going back to January 5th and 14th respectively. But it's very hard to change that front three, with the shape they're in, with the form they're in.

Can's probably better able than Henderson to deal with three matches in seven days, even though the German's played a lot more of late. Wijnaldum and Woodburn remain absent. Nat Clyne's probably not ready to start his first match of the season.

Meanwhile, Porto have won four in a row since losing to Liverpool, scoring five goals in two of those four. Liverpool currently have *checks stats* a five-goal lead. Gulps, tugs collar, etc.

But Porto are also still struggling with injuries. Danilo remains absent, while Telles, Marega, and Tiquinho – all starters from the last leg – didn't travel. Aboubakar and Corona are in the squad, but the former just came back from a few weeks out, while Corona also missed a little time before returning as a sub on Saturday.

Porto are five points ahead in the Primeira Liga – a solid, but not unbeatable lead with nine games to play. Do they risk the first XI with so many absent given it's exceedingly unlikely they'll overturn a five-goal deficit, choosing to focus on what's left in the league?

Yeah, probably. This is the Champions League, after all. And stranger things have happened.

My very-much-a-guess XI is Casillas; Maxi Pereira, Felipe, Marcano, Dalot; Otavio, Herrera, Oliviera, Brahimi; Paciencia, Aboubakar. 4-4-2 rather than 4-2-3-1. Try to get at Liverpool as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Maybe an early goal leads to two and from there, who knons what's possible?

Or maybe Aboubakar stays on the bench and it's 4-2-3-1 with Otavio or Oliver Torres in the hole and Corona or Otavio or Hernani out wide. Or maybe there are even more players included that I know even less about.

To be honest, it doesn't matter. Or, at least, it shouldn't matter. Not as long as Liverpool do what they need to, no matter the starting XI. That's the benefit of how good that Liverpool were the last time these sides spoke.

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (h), Porto (a), Southampton (a), Tottenham (h), Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), 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. 

Why, yes, Liverpool's front three did a bunch of good again.

Mohamed Salah scored again. He now has 32 goals in all competitions this season. He's scored in seven consecutive games.

Sadio Mané scored again. He has 14 goals in all competitions this season, bettering his total from last season. He's scored in three consecutive games; he's got five goals in those three games.

And even though Newcastle kept Firmino off the score sheet, he's still there with an assist and is Liverpool's most creative player in the match. He's at the epicenter of Liverpool's second goal, winning back possession, then getting into position to charge through the middle of the pitch before finding Mané in traffic, but he's also involved in the first without touching the ball – he drops into midfield when it looks as if Henderson and Oxlade-Chamberlain will build possession, and Dummett goes with him, leaving space for Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain to exploit when given the opportunity.

Once again, it's a very, very good front three. I'm very happy to be able to write this almost every single match. I'm very happy watching them do it almost every single match.

And it's not as if Benitez's Newcastle made it easy for them.

No side has blocked a higher proportion of Liverpool's shots than Newcastle did this season. Chelsea's the only other side to block more than half – nine of 16, barely less than Newcastle – while West Brom's the only other with more than 40% blocked – six of Liverpool's 14.

Liverpool drew both of those matches, 1-1 and 0-0. There were small margins in both – Willian's fluky equalizer, three clear-cut chances either missed or blocked against West Brom – but Liverpool still could only draw in both.

Liverpool won yesterday, by two goals.

It's also worth noting that most of Liverpool's shots were high-value shots. 11 of 14 from the Danger Zone, including both goals. Just two from outside the box, the last two Liverpool shots of the match. Half of Liverpool's efforts in the aforementioned draw against Chelsea came from outside the box.

Liverpool's front three are rolling and Liverpool are incrementally getting better at breaking down sides like these and life is good.

And while there doesn't seem to be a point in writing about Liverpool's defense in a match where the opposition had just 29% possession and just seven shots, Liverpool's defensive improvement needs mentioning.

Four clean sheets in the last six games is good, even if the league opponents in those currently sit 15th, 16th, and 17th.

Yes, Virgil van Dijk has a lot to do with it, even if he's only started in five of the the last 38 league games. As with Mané last year, as with Salah this year, one player can improve a side quite a bit when it's the right player.

Winning everything in the air. Getting rid when need be. A handful of interceptions and tackles. Freeing Lovren to do the things that Lovren's actually good at.

I still can't get over the amount of tackles – both successful and attempted – that Liverpool made in a match where they so dominated the ball.

Liverpool have made more successful tackles in just three other matches this season: 27 against West Ham and at Porto, and 33 against Manchester City. Incidentally, all three of those matches came in the last two months. Incidentally, Liverpool also scored at least four goals in all three of those matches.

Liverpool tackle a lot; only three sides average more successful per game – Huddersfield, Palace, and Stoke. No side has a better tackling success rate – 67.0% of Liverpool's are successful, Tottenham's second with 66.8%.

Of course, it's not the center-backs doing the tackling.

Midfielder, Midfielder, Full-back, Full-back, Full-back, Midfielder, Forward, Midfielder, Center-back, Full-back.

It shouldn't be the center-backs doing the tackling. Not in this system. The center-backs have improved, and subsequently, the defense has improved, but it's a team-wide defense. Including the goalkeeper – who once again made a crucial save with the game in the balance.

And everyone's doing their jobs.

Liverpool are allowing about as many shots in the last five league matches as they had in the 24 before: a little less than eight per game. But the shot quality's fallen off a cliff. Through the first 24 league matches, Liverpool opponents averaged 0.123 Expected Goals per non-penalty shot. That's high. That's way too high. In the last five matches, that average has dropped to 0.079 xG per shot allowed.

Six of Newcastle's seven shots on Saturday came from outside the box. The only one from inside the box was from a corner, in the 77th minute with Liverpool already 2-0 up.

And, at the same time, Liverpool has been even more dangerous at the other end. 0.115 xG per shot through the first 24 league games, 0.147 xG per shot through the last five. Better chances and more goals for that ravenous front three.

It's all coming together. And at a very good time to do so.

03 March 2018

Liverpool 2-0 Newcastle

Salah 40'
Mané 55'

Something something something Liverpool's attack is really good.

Playing against Rafa Benitez sides can be really frustrating. Liverpool hadn't beaten any of his sides coming into this game: two losses against Valencia 15 years ago, then three consecutive draws against Chelsea and Newcastle. His sides are always well-organized, and playing five at the back made it even worse.

That's it's barely above freezing and also windy certainly doesn't help.

So, we were gonna see even more Liverpool possession than usual, but we were also gonna see fewer Liverpool chances than usual, especially good chances. There would be chances – because this Liverpool side – just not as many as we'd like. And it'd be up to Liverpool to take them – something the side usually does, something the side failed to do against Everton, West Brom, and Swansea.

Yes, it took awhile to click. Mané can't control Alexander-Arnold's cross when it surprisingly falls to him in the fifth minute. Salah doesn't take the first-time shot and is closed down in the 28th. Can's set play header loops over in the 16th, Lovren's set play headers are saved and blocked in the 27th.

But this attack's gonna get its. And Mohamed Salah's gonna get his. Oxlade-Chamberlain picks up possession in midfield with the sides transitioning; van Dijk's intercepted a goal kick, but Murphy's nearly pressed Henderson into losing possession, but it's fallen kindly for Oxlade-Chamberlain. And he's away, away where he's at his best, driving at a retreating, not-yet-set defense, charging to the top of the box before finding Salah, who fires a shot through Dubravka's legs, hitting a thigh but still accurately enough to go in.

It's the seventh consecutive game with a Mo Salah goal. It's the 19th league game he's scored in, out of the 28th he's played. No Liverpool players have scored in more than 19 Premier League games in a season and only Suarez in 2013-14 and Fowler in 1994-95 and 1995-96 have scored more Premier League goals than Mo Salah in a season and it's barely March.

It's almost not fair.

And, 15 minutes and halftime later, it's even more not fair, with that one flowing, jaw-dropping, pants-erasing move that Liverpool seems to get at least one of every game. It looks like more of the patient possession we've seen when Firmino regains the ball in midfield, but Mané plays pivot when Oxlade-Chamberlain looks forward, to Can, to Firmino, and now we're away and now Firmino's slipped the ball through two defenders for Mané and now Mané's absolutely thwacked it into the goal. Woof.

There could have been more. There should have been more – with one penalty shout and a last-man, maybe-inside-maybe-outside-the-box shout ignored in the final minutes of the match. But Liverpool didn't need more at that end of the pitch.

At the other end, there was going to be little on offer from Newcastle. But Liverpool would have to be diligent and decisive in few moments that could have been. Concentration levels – rarely Liverpool's forte! – would have to stay high in the icy cold. Dwight Gayle's tortured Liverpool before. Set plays happen. Flukes happen.

But Virgil van Dijk continues to make a massive difference in defense: more comfortable playing this high line, winning everything in the air, shouting out directions and organizing the back line both in and out of possession. And Lovren has been much more competent when playing with a partner who does all of those things. After some early struggles with van Dijk's adaptation, this is now four clean sheets in Liverpool's last six games – the only exceptions that Tottenham game which we're still not talking about and West Ham's consolation with Liverpool already three-up last week.

And, the one time that Newcastle actually got around those guys and tested Loris Karius, Karius was more than equal to it, denying Diame's fierce spinning effort just before halftime. As he did against Arnautovic last week. As he did on Højbjerg's clear-cut chance and a couple of headers at Southampton with Liverpool 1-0 up three weeks ago.

It's a game-changing save. It's not the first game-changing save he's made during this run.

After waiting a year for a 2-0 win, we've now seen two in the last three league matches. And the two were a lot alike. Sure, Southampton were a lot more threatening than Newcastle, both because of their talent up front and being at home rather than away. But a Liverpool side not at its most frightening had enough up front and at the back to get the win. They've got those three players up front, they've got an increasingly coherent defense and midfield. And as the game winds down with no more Liverpool goals, we're not especially fearful, even knowing what happened with two-goal leads before.

We've seen more emphatic performances – quite a few of them. We'll see more emphatic performances. But it's competent and professional and job done. And it's three more points.

02 March 2018

Liverpool v Newcastle 03.03.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 10.01.17
2-2 (h) 04.23.16
0-2 Newcastle (a) 12.06.15
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.13.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 West Ham (h); 5-0 Porto (a); 2-0 Southampton (a)
Newcastle: 2-2 Bournemouth (a); 1-0 United (h); 1-1 Palace (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 23; Firmino 13; Coutinho, Mané 7; Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain 3; Sturridge 2; Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, Klavan, Lovren, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Newcastle: Gayle 5; Joselu 4; Lascelles 3; Atsu, Ayoze, Clark, Diame 2; Hayden, Merino, Mitrovic, Murphy, Ritchie, Saivet 1

Referee: Graham Scott (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Lovren van Dijk Robertson
Alex O-C Henderson Wijnaldum
Salah Firmino Mané

We'll see more changes when Liverpool host Porto on Tuesday, thanks to the 5-0 aggregate scoreline. There will be fewer changes than you except – don't hold your breath on Ben Woodburn, for example – but more than there should be for tomorrow's match.

So, with an almost full complement of players, we get the usual lineup questions. Right-back: Alexander-Arnold, for the fourth successive match; Gomez; or maybe even Clyne, after completing 90 minutes with the u23s earlier this week? Center-back: Matip or Lovren? And who from Henderson, Can, Wijnaldum, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Lallana will start in midfield?

Emre Can is a yellow card away from a two-game suspension, and will be until he picks up one more card or we make it to April. Admittedly, the former seems much more likely. But I'd appreciate waiting until the United match for that to happen. So, unless Henderson's still dealing with those usual minor injuries, it should be Can as the deepest midfielder.

I'm also in favor of playing Wijnaldum – even though both Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain have been better in the link role that Wijnaldum usually plays – simply because he'll be going against his former club. I am always in favor of playing players against the former club, unless that player's name rhymes with Lejan Dovren.

Which means Oxlade-Chamberlain, Milner, or Lallana for the other midfield spot. Let's guess Oxlade-Chamberlain – for his pressing, his running with the ball, his ability in tight spaces, as shown in the second half against West Ham. Milner – who's probably in the best form of any of Liverpool's midfielders (I know, right?!) – will be needed against Porto, in what'll probably be a younger side, while a 5-0 lead in a second leg also seems an okay time for Lallana's first start in ages.

Meanwhile, Newcastle. Unbeaten in their last four! A 1-0 win over Manchester United three weeks ago!

Both of those statements are true. Both of those statements need a little more explication.

Newcastle's last match, a 2-2 draw at Bournemouth, saw the hosts overturn a 2-0 deficit in the last ten minutes of the match. I mean, come on – who gives away a two-goal lead at Bournemouth? That 1-0 win against United required some amazing saves from Dubravka on his debut, as well as a fair few defensive blocks. A soft and unnecessary penalty led to the 1-1 draw with Palace, while the other was another 1-1 draw with free-falling Burnley.

Newcastle remain just one point and goal difference clear of the relegation zone, one of nine (!!!) teams currently between 24 and 27 points.

But that 1-0 win over United is probably the template. Deny, deny, deny. Then, set piece goal. Then more denials. For all the good Liverpool have done over the last few months, a match playing out in that manner remains the fear.

So my best guess is tomorrow's XI will look a lot like that XI. Dubravka; Yedlin, Lejeune, Lascelles, Dummett; Ritchie, Hayden, Diame, Kenedy; Ayoze; Gayle. The only difference is that Jonjo Shelvey is injured – and I'm still not sure whether that's a good or bad thing – as are Slimani and Gamez.

But Newcastle could play five at the back, which they've done in a handful of games this season, more often than not against "top" opposition, especially now that Ciaran Clark is back from injury. Newcastle will play whichever way that Benitez thinks will best limit Liverpool. If you hadn't heard, Rafa Benitez is pretty good at organizing his sides, at the absolute least.

And Liverpool haven't beaten Newcastle since Benitez took over, with two draws in the last two matches, preceded by a 2-0 loss at St. James Park when McClaren was manager. Newcastle remain one of two league sides that Klopp is yet to beat – along with Manchester United (in league matches only, obviously), who Liverpool will face in the subsequent league match.

As the United win is Newcastle's template, so is the last time these sides spoke. A 1-1 draw at St James' Park. A Liverpool opener swiftly followed by a Liverpool concession, featuring both a Liverpool mistake and Liverpool misfortune. And then an hour of frustratedly running into a brick wall, with Liverpool's worst shooting accuracy of the season

But that draw came amidst a run of similar matches. 2-2 Sevilla, 1-1 Burnley, 0-2 Leicester, 1-1 Spartak, 0-0 United. That was the shaky part of the season. This has not been the same Liverpool that we saw in September.

But that doesn't mean it can't happen again. That Bad Liverpool can't happen again. That Rafa Benitez can't happen again. That 1-1 Everton, 0-0 West Brom, 0-1 Swansea can't happen again.

It's been a fun few months with Liverpool scoring and Liverpool actually defending and then Liverpool scoring more and then more. It'd be fun if that continued, but Liverpool have to make it continue. Complacency is the enemy. And Newcastle are in the way.