31 August 2018

Liverpool at Leicester 09.01.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 12.30.17
3-2 Liverpool (a) 09.23.17
0-2 Leicester (a; League Cup) 09.19.17
1-3 Leicester (a) 02.27.17

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Brighton (h); 2-0 Crystal Palace (a); 4-0 West Ham (h)
Leicester: 4-0 Fleetwood (h); 2-1 Southampton (a); 2-0 Wolves (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 3; Salah 2; Milner, Sturridge 1
Leicester: Gray, Maguire, Maddison, Vardy 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

After three consecutive matches with the same XI, we've been promised changes. And I've little idea what they'll be. Or if there will really be that many.

Back five should be the same. Most importantly, you don't want to mess with what's been Liverpool's best unit so far in this short season. But also, Lovren's still injured, Gomez has played well, neither Alisson nor van Dijk are coming out. Maybe one of the full-backs is replaced; both have defended well, as the team's defended well, but neither's been at their best in attack – especially Alexander-Arnold.

You'd expect Henderson would come into midfield, but I said that prior to the last match. It could be for any of the three. We've got 32-year-old Milner already racking up the minutes, the Wijnaldum Away From Home axiom, and Keïta nowhere near his best against Brighton. Once again, it's still probably too soon for Fabinho, although he may finally make the bench.

And then there's that front three. Firmino, left out of the squad in just two of last season's 56 matches; Salah only missing a couple with a minor injury; and Mané, almost ever-present after last season's early hamstring injury and suspension. They were almost always available last season, and almost always played when available. And they were the main reason why Liverpool accomplished what Liverpool accomplished.

But this season might be different. There's at least more depth, with a frighteningly resurgent (for now) Sturridge as well as Xherdan Shaqiri, not to mention maybe Adam Lallana is a thing that exists. You'd think the former two will get starts, and probably sooner rather than later. You'd think Liverpool could play 4-4-2 with both Firmino and Sturridge up front, or 4-2-3-1 with Shaqiri in the hole behind that front three. Maybe we'll see it tomorrow.

But I dunno. And we won't know until we get examples of how Klopp's gonna rotate and what other formations are possible. Until then, it's a guessing game, and it remains easier to guess what we've seen before. Not to mention that this is the last match before the first annoying international break of the season, so it's not as if Liverpool necessarily need to rest players for what's to come. Not for a couple of weeks, at least.

Meanwhile, Leicester. Perpetually a problem. Puel's done well in settling the side after an unsurprising fall back to earth following that unlikely league title, a more proactive and pressing side than that under Rainieri. More potent full-backs, more of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Still the proclivity for counter-attacks and set plays. Still Gray's pace and Albrighton's dead balls and Harry Maguire's massive head and two defensive destroying midfielders.

But Leicester will be without Jamie Vardy, scorer of seven goals in eight games against Liverpool. Not that Kelechi Iheanacho – who will absolutely benefit from increased playing time; he's still only 21 – is that much of a downgrade.

Tomorrow's XI seems likely to be Schmeichel; Ricardo, Morgan, Maguire, Chilwell; Ndidi, Mendy; Albrighton, Maddison, Gray; Iheanacho. Nearly the same as at Southampton last week. Ricardo Pereira played on the right wing at Southampton, with Amartey at full-back, but I'd expect Pereira to return to his more familiar position tomorrow. Maybe Jonny Evans starts instead of Wes Morgan. Maybe Adrien Silva comes in for one of the two midfielders, or – less likely – Maddison for a more solid midfield.

As with the last three matches, this is a fixture that Liverpool won last season. For all the good and promising we've seen so far, and all the room for further improvement, and all the delight at the three wins from three start, we're solely on pace with last season's comparable fixtures.

At the same time, Liverpool haven't won their first four league matches since 1990-91, before the formation of the Premier League.

It's only the fourth match of a 38-game campaign, but we're already at the point where every one feels important, more important than the last. Strap in for 35 more of these, and that's only one of the four competitions Liverpool are in this season.

27 August 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Brighton

Previous Match Infographics: Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

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

As with last week's win over Crystal Palace, this wasn't great. More importantly, this was nowhere near as good as Liverpool are capable of playing.

It started off just fine.

In the first 25 minutes of the match, Mané misses the goal with a shot he'd at least hit the target on about 85% of the time, Firmino has a clear-cut header fantastically saved, Alexander-Arnold pings a free kick off the crossbar, and Liverpool are denied what appeared a fairly clear handball penalty.

And then Liverpool score, and it's great. Absolutely wonderful reading of the play and pressing from Milner, then Mané to Firmino to Salah to goal.

But from there, *shrugs*.

Liverpool's pressing slowed. Liverpool's attack ebbed away, with far too many shots both low-value and blocked or off-target. The front three's passing accuracy – to put it bluntly – sucked. Liverpool failed to create a clear-cut chance after the ninth minute, the first time they've been held to just one clear-cut chance by a non-top six or Everton side since the 2-1 win at Burnley back in January, when Mané was the only of the regular front three to start the match.

Maybe this is why Liverpool rarely start the same XI in three consecutive matches.

So, yes, I was as frustrated as most with Liverpool's attacking performance on Saturday, but I've also seen far too much criticism of Mohamed Salah after this. Similar can be said about both Firmino and Mané – who had worse games – but Salah seemingly gets it in the neck more because of the heights hit last season and subsequent expectations.

Salah scored Liverpool's winner, the lone goal in the match. Salah has scored the match winner in 12 matches so far in his short Liverpool career, and there were seven more last season where he'd have had the winner had Liverpool not stupidly conceded as Salah scored. Six of those seven ended in a draw. Both of Salah's goals this season – the same total he had after three league matches last season – were match winners. He's scored the opening goal in 14 matches – including two so far this season – and Liverpool's first goal in 18 matches.

He's played all of 55 matches for Liverpool.

Mohamed Salah is also one of just three Liverpool players to take six shots and create six chances in a single game since the beginning of the 2012-13 season. He's now done it twice. No prizes for guessing the other two.

Admittedly, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Mohamed Salah will have better matches. There was the shot saved in the 19th; the blocked, hurried shots in the 58th and 72nd minutes; the missed chances in the 87th and 90th minutes. But to believe he's started the season slowly is just wrong and it's a bad take.

Meanwhile, it's also hard to look past Brighton's defensive performance.

33 clearances, a handful more than Palace's 25 or West Ham's 20 so far this season.

Eight blocked shots, again more than Palace or West Ham, with seven of those blocks in the second half.

And 29 interceptions – the most against Liverpool since the 1-0 win against Palace a year and a week ago, the last time a Liverpool match finished 1-0. 23 of those 29 came in the defensive third, especially the central area in and around the penalty box.

Compare where Brighton's interceptions took place to Palace's last season.

Palace's were more on the flanks and slightly further forward. Brighton's were camped on the edge of the penalty box, ensuring few through-balls or dangerous passes to the likes of Salah, Mané, and Firmino.

That had something to do with Liverpool's frustratingly low passing accuracy from the front three.

But Brighton's defensive performance still wasn't as good as Liverpool's defensive performance.

Liverpool hadn't kept three consecutive league clean sheets since the final three games of 2016-17, where Liverpool had to pull fourth place from a hole where the sun rarely shines.

Pascal Groß's 89th-minute clear-cut chance was the first Liverpool had allowed all season – in 269 minutes of football – Liverpool never had as long a stretch without allowing a clear-cut chance last season. And when an opponent finally conjured one, Alisson saved it, to ensure all three points for a third consecutive match.

Liverpool have been increasingly good at the defense over the last few months.

Despite the notation on the chart, it ain't just down to Virgil van Dijk. Karius came into the side around the same time. Both Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were increasingly acclimatized to the side. Van Dijk was arguably most at fault for Brighton's clear-cut chance on Saturday, under the cross as Groß sneaks in behind him.

But Alisson saved said clear-cut chance to maintain the win, after van Dijk and Gomez had spent 88 minutes pocketing Glenn Murray et al.

As said last week, defending is a team game. And the team's getting pretty good at it.

This is almost starting to feel like the beginning of 2013-14, the last time Liverpool started the season with three straight wins. West Ham not withstanding, Liverpool aren't firing on all cylinders in attack, but Liverpool find ways to win, not quite unexpectedly, but also not necessarily what we'd seen the season before.

The turning point in 2013-14 was when Luis Suarez came into the side after suspension, although Liverpool also rarely looked as defensively secure as they did in the first three fixtures as well.

This season, it'll be when that front three goes as bananas as it did last season. And it'll happen. Ideally, Liverpool's defense will be better placed to continue in this current form.

25 August 2018

Liverpool 1-0 Brighton

Salah 23'

That was one of Liverpool's worst attacking performances in recent memory, at least with a full-strength side, with Salah, Firmino, and Mané all starting.

Multiple missed shots from Salah that he'd almost always at least put on-target, at a bare minimum. One notable effort from Mané, in the fifth minute, early enough where this probably would have ended differently.

Multiple hospital ball passes from Mané, giveaways in threatening positions, with both his line mates almost as equally guilty. Passing accuracy well below average for all of the front three.

Just one clear-cut chance, after creating four in each of the first two matches, way back in the ninth minute, with Firmino's close-range header brilliantly saved by Mat Ryan.

Whatever. Liverpool still won.

Liverpool got at least one goal, and Liverpool didn't give any away.

No prizes for guessing who the goal came from. Hello, Mo. But it wasn't a flowing start-to-finish passing move. It wasn't a blitzkrieg counter. It wasn't individual brilliance, although there was brilliance from all four individuals involved.

It was Liverpool's press, the type of press that's absolutely necessary when an opponent sits so deep and sees so little of the ball. It was James Milner, running into position to tackle Bissouma on the turn, the ball directed right at Mané. It was Mané to Firmino to Salah instantly, thankfully finished as we've become accustomed to.

You'd think that'd be the floodgates. Liverpool had beaten Brighton by four in each of the last two meetings. Liverpool hadn't won 1-0 in more than a year.

Nope. It just wasn't working today in attack. Not from that front three, aside from the goal and Firmino's chance. Not Keïta breaking lines, not crosses from the fullbacks.

As with Liverpool's romp over West Ham, it's hard to gauge just how much to credit or blame Liverpool or the opposition. Brighton defended very deep and very well, with last season's results very clear in their memory. A line of five sat directly in front of a line of four, the former pretty much on the edge of the defensive third, the latter on the edge of the penalty box. 4-5-1 rather than the usual 4-4-1-1, Bissouma brought in ahead of the creative Pascal Groß. And Liverpool weren't potent enough to break it.

To be fair, that doesn't happen often.

It's no coincidence that Liverpool's lone goal came with Brighton trying to transition: a tackle, two passes, and goal within five seconds, all within Brighton's defensive third.

From the 23rd minute on, it was all about Liverpool's midfield and Liverpool's defense, especially in the second half. The former just dominated possession for the first 75 minutes, not creative enough to break through Brighton's defense but also not allowing Brighton to counter or sustain any possession, with Keïta and Wijnaldum leading the side in tackles.

And Liverpool's defense was almost as secure as in the first two matches. Superlatives again don't do Gomez, van Dijk, and Alisson justice. Poor Glenn Murray didn't have a chance when Brighton hoofed forward, as Gomez won seven aerial duels. Virgil van Dijk commanded and controlled, organizing on corners, cutting out counters.

Of course, there's always one fright, no matter how secure Liverpool look. One goal didn't used to ever be enough. Maybe it is now.

When Liverpool's center-back pairing finally made a mistake – van Dijk misjudging the flight of a deep cross – Alisson was there, diving back across to deny Pascal Groß in the 89th minute, the first clear-cut chance Liverpool have allowed this season. Two strong punches on set plays. And three absolutely "I want to die but I love it" moments with the ball at his feet in the penalty area: a dribble around and away from Murray, a sombrero over Knockaert, and nearly turning into Murray but strong enough to toe-poke it to Wijnaldum. Let's just pretend that he was trying to keep it interesting for us.

Defending is a team game. Goalkeeper, center-backs, full-backs, midfielders, and attackers. And this team is good. And this team hasn't conceded a league goal at Anfield in six months, seven clean sheets going back to the beginning of March. And three clean sheets to start the season.

Three wins from three. One romp, two grinds. Three wins, however they're achieved.

We know the attack's going to fire. Early and often and then again. Which makes it even more encouraging to see the defense start as it has.

24 August 2018

Liverpool v Brighton 08.25.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 05.13.18
5-1 Liverpool (a) 12.02.17
6-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 02.19.12
1-2 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 10.21.11

Last matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Crystal Palace (a); 4-0 West Ham (h)
Brighton: 3-2 United (h); 0-2 Watford (a)

Referee: Chris Kavanagh (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

There might be changes?

It's seemingly harsh to drop anyone from the XI which has won the last two matches. You'd expect Henderson to return to the line-up sooner rather than later, but both Wijnaldum and Milner have been excellent. Matip's fit, Lovren won't be for another few weeks, but Gomez has similarly impressed. Firmino hasn't had his best two games, but remains an archetypal player for this system. Fabinho's going to be bedded in very slow, as Robertson was, as Oxlade-Chamberlain was. It went alright in both those cases.

Otherwise, you've seen this side, you know this side.

So let's guess Henderson comes in for Wijnaldum, because *throws hands up, stares adoringly at picture of James Milner*. Maybe Sturridge or Shaqiri for Firmino, who's seemingly had the most World-Cup-hangover of any Liverpool player who went to the World Cup (*glares at Alexander-Arnold's crossing, then remembers Alexander-Arnold's defending*), with Salah very much capable of playing as the central striker if Shaqiri's on and Sturridge very much a central striker.

But, as per usual, I'm more inclined to guess the same as before and hope that Liverpool are capable of the same as before.

As with Liverpool, this'll probably be basically the same XI as in Brighton's last match, a delightful 3-2 win over Manchester United. Ryan; Montoya, Duffy, Balogun, Bong; Knockaert, Stephens, Pröpper, March; Groß; Murray. Lewis Dunk, with two own goals in three matches against Liverpool, was injured in that match and replaced by summer signing Balogun, while Izquierdo and Bruno are also out.

Maybe Hughton decides it's time to bed in some more new players; Brighton had a very busy summer, after all. Ten new players signed during the offseason, highlighted by Montoya, who's already made the right-back position his own in Bruno's absence; Bernardo, who may come in for Bong; Yves Bissouma in central midfield; and club-record signing Alireza Jahanbakhsh, an incredibly dangerous right-winger.

But Solly March and Anthony Knockaert were integral players in Brighton's side last season and so far in this. As have been Stephens and Pröpper in midfield. Knockaert can play in Pascal Groß's position, but Pascal Groß is great, one of the most creative players in the Premier League, especially when you consider who he's playing for.

Brighton's last match against United showed what they're capable of. United's third season Mourinho syndrome not withstanding, Brighton were great. They stymied United. They took the game to United, at least in the first half. They pressed and dispossessed United and immediately went, using both width and pace up the flanks and long balls toward Glenn Murray.

They've elements of what West Ham could well be capable of if they can put all those new players and new manager together, they've elements of what Crystal Palace threatened but failed to do to Liverpool last week.

That said, Brighton have a terrible record away from home. Their opening day match was a disappointment, a 2-0 defeat at Watford. They won just two of 19 away matches in the league last season, against Swansea and West Ham, in late October and early November.

Brighton have a terrible record against Liverpool, with four-goal defeats in both fixtures last season.

Chris Hughton has a terrible record against Liverpool, with four-goal defeats in all five of his matches as a Premier League manager.

Past is no precedent, but this is Liverpool's match to win. As in weeks one and two, it's up to Liverpool to do what Liverpool needs to. What Liverpool are supposed to. What Liverpool are capable of if they're to achieve this season's goals.

22 August 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Crystal Palace

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (h)

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

Did you get worried late on?

Liverpool are up by one. Just one. And that one came from a penalty, Salah barely fouled – but fouled nonetheless – as Sakho unnecessarily sticks a leg in just before halftime.

And it's stayed at one, for the next 45 minutes. Salah's missed the target with five of his six shots – four blocked, one well off-target. Firmino's registered just one effort, wild and nowhere close in the 87th minute, playing far deeper than usual. Liverpool have put a succession of late chances on-target, Liverpool have a man-advantage with Wan-Bissaka sent off, but it's getting to the deep breaths panic stage where just one bad thing needs to happen. And has before.

And now Crystal Palace have a corner, after Liverpool just about clear an unnecessary free kick, van Dijk's header up and behind. And it's the 93rd minute. And we've all been here before.

You shouldn't have been worried. 

Virgil van Dijk rises highest to head away Milivojevic's corner. Straight to Salah. Salah and Mané are running, Salah's pass splits McArthur and van Aanholt, and Mané's away, Mané's through on goal, Mané evades van Aanholt and rounds Hennessey and it's a tap-in, it's 2-0, it's a Liverpool win.

Liverpool finally take advantage of one of the counter-attacks they'd be threatening, a similar move as to the one which saw Wan-Bissaka's red card. 

Incidentally, it was nice to see Liverpool score at the end of both halves. I suspect you remember last season, when Liverpool conceded more than they scored in the last minute of each half. Which is part of the reason why were were worried.

And the story of the match is, surprisingly enough, Liverpool's defense. Don't get me wrong; Liverpool weren't bad in attack. Liverpool are rarely bad in attack. Four clear-cut chances on Palace's ground, with two scored. Six shots and four key passes in a "bad" Salah performance, as well as an assist, a penalty won, and the run for Wan-Bissaka's dismissal. Mané again scoring, for the fourth match in a row against Crystal Palace, Mané again one of Liverpool's most creative players.

Virgil van Dijk's clearing header to start Liverpool's second was symptomatic of the center-back's performance.

Passing, clearances, aerial duels, etc. etc. etc.

Van Dijk absolutely dominated Benteke, who's given Liverpool all sorts of problems in the past, removed in the 70th minute and seemingly happy to have been.

But it wasn't just van Dijk. It was his center-back partner as well, with Gomez again belying both age and experience, often the defender most responsible for tracking Zaha. It was Alexander-Arnold on the right, where Liverpool's interceptions are clustered, where Crystal Palace routinely looked to play in Zaha, aided by both Gomez and Milner. It was Keïta, Milner, and Robertson leading the side in tackles. It was Alisson as well, even if not frequently called upon, there when needed to save, claim, and organize. And distribute from the back.

Liverpool haven't yet conceded in this season's two matches – the only Premier League club that can say so – and Liverpool haven't yet allowed a single opposition clear-cut chance. Palace did have a couple of quasi-frightening moments, but two came from well outside the box – Andros Townsend off the crossbar from his "spot" and Milivojevic's free kick saved by Alisson – as well as one offside set play header that Alisson saved anyway.

Both West Ham and Crystal Palace totaled around 0.5 xG in each match. Liverpool had 3.7 xG against West Ham and 2.4 xG plus a penalty at Palace.

This is the first time that Liverpool have held Crystal Palace scoreless on their own ground in this match-up in the league since 1997. 

I was not kidding when I said this might be Liverpool's hardest match outside the top six and Everton. I fully expect Palace to finish in the top 10, if not eighth at worst. They are the type of side who's hurt Liverpool in the past, with that deep, organized defense – look how many of Palace's tackles and interceptions came in or just outside of the penalty box – and with players like Zaha and Benteke on the counter-attack.

And Liverpool won, if not comfortably than at least thoroughly and deservedly. Liverpool won without the attack anywhere near its best, even if there were still the consistent signs of potency and threat, especially in Liverpool's transitions as the match went on. Liverpool won this match more because of its organization and defense, which is something we've rarely said in recent seasons.

It's still very early, but there's more than a bit of "uh oh, Happy learned how to putt" starting to arise here.

19 August 2018

Liverpool at Crystal Palace 08.20.18

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.18
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.19.17
1-2 Palace (h) 04.23.17
4-2 Liverpool (h) 10.29.16

Last match:
Liverpool: 4-0 West Ham (h)
Palace: 2-0 Fulham (a)

Referee: Michael Oliver (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

This will be a far tougher test than last week.

Liverpool had to work for both narrow victories last season – a 1-0 slog and 2-1 comeback. In earlier seasons, Palace punished Liverpool at least once a season.

Palace have players who've punished Liverpool in the past, Palace have players capable of punishing Liverpool now. I doubt Christian Benteke goes through last season's horror finishing again in this. Hennessey has stood on his head in previous meetings, making multiple saves he'd no right to make. And Wilfred Zaha and Schlupp down Liverpool's left will ask far more of Alexander-Arnold and Gomez than West Ham did, especially Zaha, who remains one of the best players in the league outside the top six.

Palace were far better than their league place last season suggests, and they finished 11th, firmly mid-table without the threat of relegation for the final few months. If not for a ghastly, unlucky first few months which saw Frank de Boer fired, they'd have finished a few places higher.

Palace are the type of side that's troubled Liverpool in the past – capable of defending deep and solid then counter-attacking at pace, both up the wings and long to Benteke. Set plays toward Benteke and the central defenders, free kicks from Milivojevic. It's a very Roy Hodgson side. And Roy Hodgson loves doing things to Liverpool, whether as opposition manager or Liverpool manager.

Both sides should line up as they did last week. Matip's back in training, but Gomez seems likely to keep his place. There's a reasonable chance that Henderson comes in for either Milner or Wijnaldum, but I'm not sure which. It's still too soon for Fabinho. Otherwise, this Liverpool side's already basically formed and – aside from the center-backs – fully fit.

As is Crystal Palace. Maybe summer-signing Kouyate comes in for McArthur, but otherwise, they are what they are. 4-4-2. The XI which beat upstart Fulham a week ago should be the XI tomorrow. Hennessey; Wan-Bissaka, Tomkins, Sakho, van Aanholt; Townsend, Milivojevic, McArthur, Schlupp; Benteke, Zaha.

Zaha and Benteke as the focal points. Diligent destroyers in midfield, even if that underrates Milivojevic. Surprisingly competent at the back – because that's what Hodgson does – especially with Wan-Bissaka's improvement; like Alexander-Arnold, a young academy graduate full-back whose play belies his years. The other summer additions aren't likely to start: it's too soon for Max Meyer, Hennessey's performance should see him stay ahead of Vincente Guaita, and Jordan Ayew's more for attacking depth than the first XI.

There are ways for Palace to win this, or at least snatch a draw. This might well be Liverpool's toughest fixture outside the top six and Everton.

But if the last season's proven anything, it's that we shouldn't worry about the opposition. We should worry about what Liverpool do to that opposition. And it's usually a lot. Liverpool are still Liverpool. Liverpool still have that defense, midfield, and – most importantly – that front three. No matter that it's the second match of the season, and a surprisingly difficult one. If Liverpool play to their potential, Liverpool can beat almost anyone.

Both sides have scored in every meeting at Selhurst Park since Palace came back into the Premier League in 2013-14. Six matches since, finishing 3-3, 1-3, 2-1, 2-1, 4-2, and 2-1. There are goals in this fixture, for each team.

I like matches with goals. Because Liverpool are usually better than the opposition at getting goals.

14 August 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 West Ham

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

As you may have noticed, that was a really good attacking performance.

Liverpool surpassed Sunday's 3.7 Expected Goals in just three league matches last season: 4-0 Arsenal (h), 4-0 West Ham (h), and 3-0 Brighton (h). The same three matches were the only with a higher xG differential.

Only six league matches saw more than the five clear-cut chances that Liverpool had on Sunday. Only two of those six saw Liverpool score three clear-cut chances.

As Andrew Beasley noted in his new column for the Liverpool Echo, Liverpool had six shots in the six-yard box. Which is a new high under Jürgen Klopp. Which is twice as many as last season's high, and twice as many as the previous high since Klopp became manager. And it led to three goals and five clear-cut chances.

Firmino's missed chance a minute before Salah's goal, Salah's goal, and Mané's first goal all came from either low crosses or byline pull-backs. Get players wide, get attackers bum-rushing. Get what might be a deep, static defense moving, get those wonderful, wonderful attackers in behind.

Thrice caught offside in the first 12 minutes coming up against West Ham's reasonably organized back four, Liverpool adapted. And Liverpool proceeded to Hulk Smash.

Space arose, and it's down to more what Liverpool did that how West Ham played. Space arose because of Liverpool's movement and passing into the areas between West Ham's midfield and defense, and then Liverpool's attackers were able to get in behind said defense due to their movement and Liverpool's passing from the wide channels, whether from Milner or the fullbacks.

So, sure, West Ham subsequently made it easier for Liverpool than others probably will – that high-ish line eventually figured out, and also coupled with that midfield – but this is a needed arrow in Liverpool's quiver when trying to break down defenses which'll be both deeper and more secure.

For the first game of the season, all of Liverpool's attacking play impressed, whether in midfield, out wide, or from the front three. Liverpool, patient in possession as per usual against opposition with no possession, but also looking for the more potent forward pass more often than we've seen in matches like these, whether it's Alexander-Arnold getting the ball to Keïta in space in the middle, despite easier passes available, for the opening goal, or Keïta storming through midfield, or Milner and Wijnaldum trying to release Mané and Salah with chips over the top, or etc. etc.

You aren't supposed to look this cohesive in the first match of the season, no matter what the opposition does or doesn't do.

Unsurprisingly, I focused on Naby Ke ïta. We've had to wait so long after all. And it was absolutely worth it.

Not only was there the run and pass for Liverpool's opener, but there was also the chance created for Wijnaldum by a tornado run into the box. There was an early attempted throughball that just found Mané barely offside. There was the ability to play as a left-sided attacker for the final 20 minutes, even if the game was long gone by the point.

Passes up and down the length of the field, claiming the entire left half of the pitch for himself. Two successful dribbles in the attacking third, with the "unsuccessful" setting up the aforementioned Wijnaldum chance. The second-most ball recoveries by a Liverpool player.

Woof. This is gonna be fun to watch. It's all gonna be fun to watch.

But, of course, it's not as if Keïta was the only one to impress even more than expected. Literally every Liverpool player did. Alisson, rarely under pressure but with two saves and a strong punch. Alexander-Arnold, wasteful on crosses but still constantly up and down on the right, never defensively threatened by West Ham's record signing. Robertson, even more effective on the left. Van Dijk, as imperious as ever, and Gomez, comfortable alongside him. Milner, for whom age does not matter, by far the most touches in the Liverpool squad, the most chances created in the Liverpool squad, yet another assist. Wijnaldum, again perfectly comfortable in a holding midfield role. And, of course, that front three, whether it's Salah's goal or Mané's two or Firmino necessarily coming deep to link play with Keïta and Milner, also setting up Mané's second goal and nearly on the scoresheet himself in the 18th minute. And let's not forget Henderson, Shaqiri, and Sturridge making moves from off the bench, hopefully demonstrating Liverpool's increased strength in depth.

While watching, and even more in retrospect, it was damned good and damned encouraging.

There will be more thorough examinations. Much more so. But this is exactly how you want to start a new season.

12 August 2018

Liverpool 4-0 West Ham

Salah 19'
Mané 45+2' 53'
Sturridge 88'

Well that's not going to do anything to dampen our optimism.

Comprehensive, comfortable, never in doubt, etc. Picking up where Liverpool left off last season.

Liverpool go at West Ham immediately. Keïta, Wijnaldum, and Milner routinely win possession, the fullbacks are the outlets, the front three look to go. Gomez and van Dijk smother what little long-ball exits West Ham attempt to conjure.

Liverpool go at West Ham again and again. Salah scores, Mané scores, Mané scores again. Once Salah opened the gates, the flood came. Alexander-Arnold long to Keïta in space, a run at West Ham's retreating back line with Mark Noble puffing in his wake, holding long enough to release Robertson at the exact right time, centered to the world's best goal-scorer for a tap-in.

Exactly how Liverpool drew it up.

There's a slight fright, the only fright, a few minutes later. A hoof over the top finds Arnautovic behind Gomez, for the only time in the match. The subsequent corner finds Balbuena, who could only head straight at Alisson.

Those are the hazards of a one-goal lead. Good thing this Liverpool are built for more than one goal.

Seconds before halftime, with West Ham not entirely in position following a cleared West Ham corner. Liverpool drag defenders around, Salah's cross is blocked, Robertson's isn't, absolutely destroying West Ham's attempted offside line. Milner at the back post, just inside the byline. Mané for the tap-in. A third Mané goal in the last three opening day fixtures.

Two first-half goals, each scored from no more than three yards from the goal line because of Liverpool's movement, Liverpool's awareness, and that front three.

And we're basically done here. We're definitely done here when Mané gets the third from a very offside position, Keïta to Gomez to Milner on the run, into Firmino, tapped into Mané, West Ham defenders surrounding but somehow not close to either of those forwards. To be fair, offsides. To be fair, I don't care.

And now it's play time. Henderson replaces Firmino; the substitute proceeds to try to run 90 minutes worth in 20 minutes. Keïta surprisingly spends the rest of the match on the left, either to see if he's capable of providing more depth at that position or to get him closer to goal in the hope that we'll see another Liverpool debutant scoring in their first league match. Shaqiri replaces Mané, and is near through on goal by Robertson on Liverpool's next attack. A kid runs onto the pitch to hug Salah. Sturridge comes on for Salah with seconds left and scores with his first touch, slamming in a corner from inches out after a West Ham flick-on, which, I mean, I didn't need, I'm already probably too hyped here.

So we end with one of those games where it's hard to tell how good Liverpool are versus how bad West Ham were. My suspicion is that it's a bit of both.

I doubt it needs reiterating, but this Liverpool is good. That front three may not score quite as much as last season – may in both quotations marks and italics – but they ain't forgetting how to do the football either. Virgil van Dijk is an absolute monster. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold are Liverpool's best full-back pairing in decades, aged 24 and 19 respectively. Wijnaldum and Milner will do all the little things needed in these matches – movement, ball control, pressing – even if neither conjure the big things often enough.

It's impossible to judge Alisson on this – all of two terrible shots on-target from West Ham, no real press when trying to pass from the back – but Naby Keïta sure impressed. Everywhere in midfield, whether on or off the ball, an absolute terror both in possession or out. From the opening minute, for all 90 minutes. That run and pass to Robertson for the first goal, a few more similar situations that could have been converted. There will be fawning, lots of it.

Meanwhile, this West Ham played like a team with a new manager and five new signings in the starting XI. There was little cohesion. Poor Marko Arnautovic was often the only West Ham player in Liverpool's half. A midfield of "he's only 31 years old" Mark Noble, converted-center-back-and-taken-off-at-halftime Declan Rice, and Jack "insert multiple jokes here" Wilshere probably wasn't the best idea either. Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio can be threats on the counter, but Liverpool didn't let them. West Ham couldn't control, West Ham couldn't counter, and West Ham didn't press, and you really don't want to do those things against Liverpool.

This West Ham played like they played in the previous three meetings against Liverpool. Where Liverpool also scored four goals.

I suspect West Ham will be better than this. This was probably as tough an ask as you could have made for this type of side in this situation on opening day.

That Liverpool made it such an impossible ask bodes incredibly well.

11 August 2018

Liverpool v West Ham 08.12.18

8:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 02.24.18
4-1 Liverpool (a) 11.04.17
4-0 Liverpool (a) 05.14.17
2-2 (h) 12.11.16

Last three preseason matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Torino (h); 5-0 Napoli (n); 4-1 Manchester Utd (n)
West Ham: 1-0 Angers (n); 1-1 Mainz [7-6 pens] (n); 2-1 Ipswich (a)

Referee: Anthony Taylor (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

Everyone's optimistic. And rightfully so. And now we get to see how much is justified.

Well, kinda.

The first match doesn't define a season, but it can define some of it. 3-3 at Watford last season, a warning about conceding from set plays issues and conceding late goals issues which would haunt Liverpool off and on all season, at least decreasing as the season went on. 4-3 at Arsenal in 2016-17, a marker set against Liverpool's top four rivals – which they'd go unbeaten against – and a prediction of some of the wild score lines we'd see until that winter of our discontent.

This season starts against West Ham, a team Liverpool have scored four against in each of the last three meetings. This season starts at Anfield, for the first time since 2014-15 (don't look up how that season went).

It won't be full-strength Liverpool, but it won't be far off, despite World Cup exertions. Fabinho and Lovren are injured, and the latter wouldn't be included anyway because of his late return. Henderson will seemingly play despite returning around the same time as Lovren, but we could get Milner in that role instead. Clyne, with a full preseason, will probably be preferred to Alexander-Arnold, but it's close. Gomez is the fittest of the non-van Dijk center-backs, which is our first "oh shit, injuries" worry for the season. Maybe we get a Shaqiri or Sturridge curveball, but I doubt it.

But we'll get that front three, from the opening whistle of the season. We'll get Naby Keïta. We'll get Alisson Becker. We'll get a lot of the very good Liverpool players which led to the last very good season. It's up to them to both repeat and improve upon it.

And we won't get the same West Ham that Liverpool stomped in the last three meetings. A new manager in Manuel Pellegrini. A ton of new signings: Felipe Anderson, Issa Diop, Andriy Yarmolenko, Jack Wilshere, Lukasz Fabianski, Carlos Sanchez, Lucas Perez, Ryan Fredericks, Fabian Balbuena.

It's probably a good time to play West Ham, before this side settles. I expect they'll be a lot better this year than last. There's always a risk that many new faces won't coalesce, but there are some good players in there, loads better than the season before. And Pellegrini's also an obvious upgrade, an experienced manager who both knows how to balance a large squad and play to that side's strengths.

It also makes West Ham's XI near-impossible to guess. Let's go with Fabianski; Fredericks, Diop, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Wilshere, Noble; Felipe Anderson, Antonio, Arnautovic; Chicharito – basically the side from the final preseason match. Carroll (surprise!), Lanzini, Reid, and Fernandes are all out through injury. West Ham shouldn't sit too deep or press too hard or attack solely via countering. I expect we'll get a little of everything as this side figures itself out.

Liverpool should do Liverpool. That usually works out well.

It's time. It's finally time. It feels like we've been waiting forever since the Champions League final. But it also feels like the World Cup just ended.

The dichotomy of watching Liverpool. The exhilaration and excitement. The utter terror.

Deep breaths. We go again.

07 August 2018

Liverpool Season Preview 2018-19

I hate optimism. It makes me nervous.

Last season's run to the Champions League final. Last season's underlying statistics. This summer's additions.

They're all good. Really good. Even preseason, for what little that's worth, has been good as it winds into the real campaign: 2-1 City, 4-1 United, 5-0 Napoli.

And it makes me nervous.

Like last summer, there haven't been many ins and outs. Naby Keïta, signed a year ago, finally a Liverpool player. Fabinho, a more orthodox defensive midfielder to both spell Henderson and allow him to play further forward, but one who'll also need time to adjust to the Premier League. Alisson, the top class keeper we've been screaming about for years. And Xherdan Shaqiri, necessary depth across any of the attacking positions.

Like last summer, they're expensive tweaks rather than the wholesale changes we saw in 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17. Incremental but important improvement to a side that was already damned fun and damned good.

Keïta for Emre Can and Alisson for Ward isn't like-for-like – thankfully! – but Liverpool have positionally replaced those who've departed.

And others are bound to depart as well. Liverpool have already loaned Woodburn, Wilson, Ejaria, and Kent. Ings, Ojo, Origi, Grujic, Mignolet, Markovic, and Chirivella seem likely to leave this week, whether via sale or loan. Ten of those 11 players, not counting Mignolet, combined for all of 529 minutes played for Liverpool last season, the vast majority by Ings.

I'd feel better about the midfield with Oxlade-Chamberlain fit, ruled out for the entire season. I'd feel better about the front three with just one more player in depth, even if it were Woodburn or Wilson – both loaned out because they desperately need playing time at this stage of their career. All of the strikers can play wide *if need be* but I'd very much prefer they weren't. Markovic, Ings, Ojo, etc. – still with the club for now – are obviously not counted because you read the same rumors I read, although I certainly wouldn't be mad if Ojo stayed with the club this season.

Because, as much as I'd like to, I find it hard to believe that Liverpool's front three will be as available as they were last season.

Good lord that front three was good last season. And I really hope they'll be as good next season. But just as importantly, good lord that front three was almost always available last season. And I really hope that they'll be next season.

They could be! But then one could get seriously injured and then does everything fall to hell?

Salah, Firmino, and Mané were unsurprisingly Liverpool's top three scorers last season. 91 goals in all competitions between them. Woof. More than most Liverpool seasons in recent years. Fourth, fifth, and sixth top-scorers? Coutinho, Emre Can, and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Sold, left on a free transfer, out for the season. There's another 23 goals between them. Seventh-top scorer was a three-way tie between Sturridge, Alexander-Arnold, and Own Goals. With three each.

Can Keïta, Sturridge, Shaqiri, Lallana, Fabinho pick that up? Can Sturridge and Lallana stay anywhere near fit? Will Henderson score more playing further forward, with Fabinho as the deepest midfielder?

Shaqiri will absolutely help in that regard, and is a much-needed game-changer off the bench. Naby Keïta scored eight and nine in his last two seasons at RB Leipzig, in a side that scored a lot less than last season's Liverpool. Sturridge has *gulps, tugs collar* looked fantastic so far in preseason. Lallana, even with "normal" injuries, will be around more this season, versatile enough to play anywhere in the front five.

So, maybe. But it's still maybe.

Regardless, this is one hell of a squad, especially when the preferred XI are all available. It might well be the best Liverpool squad I can remember, in more than a decade of doing this. In all three areas of the pitch: that front three; a constantly improving defense after adding Virgil van Dijk and now featuring the world's most expensive goalkeeper; and if everyone settles, an well-balanced and surprisingly deep midfield.

And this squad is exactly the right age to reach its potential.

The nine Liverpool players who played the most league minutes last season are all between 24 and 29 years old. Salah, Firmino, and Mané are 26, exactly at what should be the apex of their powers. Fabinho's 24, Keïta's 23, Alisson's 25, and Shaqiri's 26. Only Milner – for whom age truly is just a number – Lallana, and Klavan are over 30.

We've been talking about how a young Liverpool have potential for three seasons. Now is when that gets proven.

And not only is the squad the right age, it's mostly a settled squad.

Sure, only two of Liverpool's most-likely 25 players have made more than 150 appearances for the club. Only two were with the club before the 2014-15 season.

But 16 of the 25 were either signed or promoted from the Academy by Jürgen Klopp. Eight of the 11 players in the "first-choice" side are Klopp signings or promotions – all except for Jordan Henderson, Dejan Lovren, and Roberto Firmino; the first two have absolutely earned their spots and the latter is probably the most Jürgen Klopp player to ever play.

This group has grown together, this group will continue to grow together. This group is already good, and looks as if its gotten even better.

But what Liverpool does or has done isn't all that matters.

Manchester City remains the league's leviathan, curb-stomping almost all-comers last season. Most points, most wins, most goals, etc. etc. in a single campaign. All they've lost is Yaya Toure and a couple of back-up goalkeepers. They've added a club record signing in Riyad Mahrez. They remain terrifyingly good. It's still their league to lose.

Chelsea and Arsenal, under new management, will both be very different sides this season. That may help Liverpool, as both go through a period of adjustment. That may threaten Liverpool, as Chelsea bounce back after a disappointing campaign, as Chelsea always seems to do; as Arsenal push forward after a few seasons of Late Wenger Malaise. Neither will have Champions League football this season, and we've seen how that can help domestically, although the Europa League can be a detriment depending on how it's handled.

Tottenham have stood still, but that's still a very good and young and experienced squad standing still, albeit one that's moving into a new stadium – meaning they will be a lot of away matches to start the campaign – and one that'll seemingly struggle with World Cup fatigue more than any other in England. If Tottenham still start well enough, look out. If not, it could be a long season playing catch-up.

It feels like it's gonna be very Third Season Jose Mourinho for Manchester United, but you can never count that lot out, especially since Liverpool haven't beaten them in a match that counts since 2013-14.

And while the rest of league's spent some money, Liverpool were very good against the rest of the league last season, with only one loss to a side outside the top five. Whether that's a high-water mark or a trend which continues remains to be seen.

It also ain't gonna be the easiest start to the season.

Liverpool will play four matches against top-six rivals in the first 11 games. Three of those four are away from home: Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal, with the other against Manchester City. Comparable fixtures in both September and November are worrisome, with Liverpool only taking nine of an available 21 points in those matches last season.

If Liverpool similarly struggle in those matches, we could be done here before 2019 depending on what others do. But if Liverpool improve on last season's comparable performances, look out. All things considered, Liverpool have gotten off lightly from the World Cup, with only Lovren and Henderson yet to feature in preseason, which should definitely help at the start. Aside from the New Years' Day game at Manchester City, it's not a bad festive period. It's certainly looks a reasonable close-season run-in. There are points on the table, clear ways to improve upon the totals from last season.

Can Liverpool win the league this season? Probably not. But maybe! Honestly.

We've got reason to be optimistic.

Liverpool have that front three. They're the right age. They've added some outstanding players this summer, and have only lost Coutinho – who Liverpool did fine without for half a season – and Emre Can. They were an incredibly fun side last season that looks to be even more fun in this one.

Liverpool have the talent. More than any other Liverpool side in recent memory.

But so do five other sides in England, especially the one who just won the dang thing.

What you do obviously matters. And Liverpool have seemingly done what they've needed to this summer, building upon a truly enjoyable team from last season. As has thankfully happened in every year since Jürgen Klopp became manager.

But it ain't only up to Liverpool.