29 September 2018

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Hazard 25'
Sturridge 89'

So I had the match report already written. And there was a lot of complaining, mostly about the front three.

It wasn’t the greatest performance in the other phases either, with midfield creativity an issue and a defense that was allowing Chelsea chances mainly due to long passes to Hazard and Willian in behind the full-backs, whether on the floor or in the air. But I was most annoyed with and disappointed in Liverpool’s attack, which is not a sentence I often feel needs writing.

Two seemingly certain goals cleared off the line by Chelsea defenders: Rudiger after Salah rounded Kepa in the 32nd minute, David Luiz from Firmino’s header in the 72nd. Shaqiri’s missed sitter in the 70th minute, set up by Robertson’s low cross on a rare fast attack. Kepa’s wonderful save on Mané’s shot in the 58th minute. Some makable but wild shots in the first half when Liverpool were the better side, before Chelsea opened the scoring.

And as much as those missed opportunities, it was the frequent loose touches and sloppy passes in the final third. Close-quarters interplay failing to find teammates, centered passes cut out, crosses over attackers heads. Hell, we even saw Salah – Mohamed Salah! – hauled off in the 66th minute because that's how little he'd done. It was frustrating. So, so frustrating, especially when we know what Liverpool are capable of. I may be undervaluing Chelsea’s defense, compact and controlling, but it certainly felt like Liverpool’s attackers could and should have done more and that’s why Liverpool were going to lose.

But then came Daniel Sturridge. In the 89th minute. From the damned parking lot to the only place that Kepa couldn’t save it.

Let's roll that beautiful bean footage.

And now this is a very different match report.

It goes without saying, especially considering where Liverpool were in the 88th minute, but I will absolutely take a point from this.

Yes, there were the aforementioned missed opportunities for Liverpool, but Liverpool also needed Alisson to make two egregious saves, first on Willian in the 22nd minute, in behind Robertson, then one v one with Hazard after a quickly taken free kick in the 64th. Liverpool conceded to a very good goal, with the midfield passed through by Hazard, Jorginho, and Kovacic and a through-ball to Hazard, yet another moment where Chelsea’s wide attackers exploited Liverpool’s high line and attacking full-backs. And, of course, scored by Hazard. I really do hate that guy.

It’s a lot easier to say when it’s your side that scores a dramatic late equalizer – something Liverpool has been on the receiving end of more often than the giving – but these two sides were equally balanced, and I’d guess it was a hell of a match to watch for neutrals. Sarri’s Chelsea gave Liverpool a serious challenge, combining his style of attack with the deep, determined Chelsea defense we’ve hated for years. And they’re probably only going to get better; he’s been manager for all of two and a half months.

My biggest takeaway – other than Daniel Sturridge is great and I love him – is that this is what we’ve been talking about with Liverpool’s new-found strength in depth. Today’s substitutes? Shaqiri, who should have leveled matters earlier than they were. Naby Keïta, £45m worth of midfielder, adding more dynamism and impetus to Liverpool’s play. And Daniel Sturridge. A healthy, in-form Daniel Sturridge who scored that wall-banger and then celebrated against a former club.

Klopp now has more weapons at his disposal, and Klopp used those weapons to rescue a point, also clearly not caring if Liverpool lost by one or two if it gave the team a better chance of possibly getting a draw.

Liverpool have now played two of last season’s top six away from home. Liverpool lost to both Tottenham and Chelsea last season, and have now won and drawn the same fixtures this season. The other three still to come? Loss at City, loss at United, draw at Arsenal last season. I feel like there’s room for improvement there as well.

And, obviously, still, there’s more room for improvement in this Liverpool side.

28 September 2018

Liverpool at Chelsea 09.29.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Chelsea (h; League Cup) 09.26.18
0-1 Chelsea (a) 05.06.18
1-1 (h) 11.25.17
1-1 (h) 01.31.17

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Chelsea (h); 3-0 Southampton (h); 3-2 PSG (h)
Chelsea: 2-1 Liverpool (a); 0-0 West Ham (a); 1-0 PAOK (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 4; Salah 3; Firmino 2; Matip, Milner, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1
Chelsea: Hazard 5; Pedro 3; Alonso, Jorginho, Kante, Morata, Willian 1

Referee: Andre Marriner (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

So Wednesday wasn’t fun. But this ain’t gonna be Wednesday. Maybe for better, maybe for worse.

Unlike in the League Cup, we’re getting the Liverpool we know and love. At least in the starting XI. For the most part. Whether we get the play we know and love obviously remains to be seen.

The one worry is that Virgil van Dijk won’t have gotten over his rib injury, requiring either Matip or Lovren to keep their place, probably alongside Gomez. And I hope that doesn’t happen. That’s only a marginal slight on Matip or Lovren; they’re better than usually given credit for, even considering the seemingly inevitable once-per-game mistake, but they ain’t Virgil. The full-backs have made a huge improvement, especially considering their respective ages. Gomez is coming along nicely. Alisson’s gonna be great. But van Dijk is the centerpiece, touchstone, leader, etc of this defense.

The only other question is the usual three from four debate in midfield. I’ve left Henderson out in the above guess, as I think the movement and running of Milner and Keïta is crucial and Henderson’s been better is games against lesser opposition that’s pinned back and we’ve seen this trio more than any other, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised by any combination.

Otherwise, you know this lineup. And it ain’t the lineup which lost on Wednesday.

Liverpool will be better, stronger, more coherent than they were in the League Cup, but so will Chelsea. To be fair, Chelsea made almost as many changes to their starting XI as Liverpool did in that meeting.

Tomorrow we’ll get Marcos Alonso, bombing forward from full-back with far more threat, on Chelsea's much more dangerous left flank, even if his replacement in the last match scored the equalizer. Jorginho, controlling play from deep midfield, the architect of what Sarri wants to do, pass pass pass away from and around Liverpool, allowing Chelsea to better control tenor and tempo, especially at home. Kanté, no longer the deepest midfielder, but energetic further forward in both pressing and breaking lines. Giroud, far more potent than Morata, especially against Liverpool, with six goals in his last seven matches against Liverpool, including the winner the last time these sides met in the league.

But most importantly, Eden Hazard will start. You saw the impact he had on Wednesday.

And you saw what Chelsea are without him. 0-0 at West Ham the last league match when West Ham focused solely on keeping him quiet. 1-0 to Liverpool, with the score line arguably unfair to the home side, until he came on. And it finished 1-2. Hazard delivered the set play leading to Barkley’s shot leading to the corner that Chelsea equalized on. Hazard scored an unbelievable winner, whomp whomp whomping Keïta and Moreno (especially Moreno) before beating Mignolet all ends in all directions.

I don’t much care for Eden Hazard.

So tomorrow’s XI is likely to be Kepa; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Luiz, Alonso; Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic; Willian, Giroud, Hazard. As on Wednesday, Pedro, Rudiger, and Loftus-Cheek are doubtful. Maybe we’ll get Christensen instead of Cahill, or Rudiger if available, or Fabregas instead of Kovacic in midfield.

So, yeah, Chelsea’s a threat. Even more so than on Wednesday, a match they won at Anfield. And this is at Stamford Bridge.

But still-unbeaten-in-competitions-that-matter Liverpool will be no pushovers. Two of the best sides in the league in match-week seven. Pressing and verticality against pressing and verticality. Hilariously good attackers, diligent and combative midfielders, wild full-backs, the two most expensive goalkeepers in the world, and defenses that range from “can be gotten” to “you ain’t getting” depending on who’s available for either side.

This is what the Premier League’s supposed to be about. Try to enjoy it. And look out.

25 September 2018

Liverpool v Chelsea 09.26.18

2:45pm ET, live in the US on ESPN+

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Chelsea (a) 05.06.18
1-1 (h) 11.25.17
1-1 (h) 01.31.17
2-1 Liverpool (a) 09.16.16

Last matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Southampton (h); 3-2 PSG (h); 2-1 Tottenham (a)
Chelsea: 0-0 West Ham (a); 1-0 PAOK (a); 4-1 Cardiff (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Mané 4; Firmino, Salah 2; Milner, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1
Chelsea: Hazard 5; Pedro 3; Willian 2; Alonso, Jorginho, Kante, Morata 1

Referee: Kevin Friend (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Moreno
Milner Fabinho Keïta
Sturridge Solanke Shaqiri

It ain’t quite the battle of who could care less, but this is at best an amuse-bouche before the weekend.

The League Cup remains the League Cup. Liverpool’s squad is both better and deeper this season, more capable of contesting all four competitions, but this one remains a distant fourth on the list of priorities.

Normally, the tie being against Chelsea would make it more meaningful, if not more important, but that Liverpool subsequently play the same side in the league on Saturday means that no one’s going to want to tip their hands. And after Chelsea comes Napoli and Manchester City. So it seems we're back to the League Cup still being the League Cup.

That said, Klopp’s league cup lineups have often been somewhere between slightly stronger and much stronger than we’ve expected. But it’s hard to see that being the case tomorrow, especially since Liverpool have a surprising amount of actually good players who’ve hardly seen the pitch so far this season.

Guessing a brand new back five may be foolish, but at least one of Clyne or Moreno will come in at full-back, if not both. Matip will keep his place, and Lovren’s supposedly fully fit and ready to go. I’d vastly prefer Alisson stay in goal, but the obviously-out-of-favor Simon Mignolet’s definitely starting according to Klopp so *shrugs vehemently*.

The front six is as much a guessing game. We all would really like to see Fabinho finally start, while both Keïta and Milner were substitutes against Southampton. Firmino’s definitely not starting, and it’s not hard seeing both Mané and Salah left out as well. Maybe one keeps their place, alongside Sturridge and Shaqiri. Maybe it’s the above, with Sturridge ostensibly on the right, where he’s kinda sorta capable of playing. Maybe it’s the above players in a 4-4-2 diamond, with Sturridge and Solanke up front, Shaqiri as the most advanced midfielder, and Milner and Keïta pushing a bit wider than usual – something both are very much able to do.

It’s the League Cup. Who knows.

Meanwhile, Chelsea will almost certainly approach the match similarly. Wholesale changes. Something like Caballero; Zappacosta, Cahill, Christensen, Emerson; Fabregas, Ampadu, Barkley; Moses, Morata, Hudson-Odoi. Rudiger, Pedro, and Loftus-Cheek are probably absent, all recovering from respective injuries. There has been talk that Hazard will play, but I’d be surprised; he’s too important to Chelsea. Similar goes for players like Marcos Alonso, Kanté, Jorginho, and Willian, but honestly have no idea.

Chelsea have started the season well, unbeaten and having won all of their matches until Sunday, when they drew 0-0 at West Ham. Venue notwithstanding, that’s a West Ham side that Liverpool whomped last month. It’s a West Ham side that has won just two matches this season, at Wimbledon in the League Cup and at Everton nine days ago. Maybe these results against Chelsea and Everton are a sign that West Ham are coming together with a vastly different side and new manager. Or maybe it’s a sign that West Ham knew that if they just kept Hazard quiet, they’d have a good chance of getting something from the match. And they did, and then they did. Which might explain why there’s talk Hazard will play tomorrow.

Wholesale changes, including players who've featured far less, may make Chelsea less capable of Sarri-ball, but they will still be a compact, pressing, possession-dominating side. Which could upset a changed Liverpool XI or feed into Liverpool's compact, pressing, blitzkrieg-counter side. I'm honestly curious to see.

So, yeah, League Cup. Another chance to watch a fun Liverpool side, and a chance for players not featuring regularly to stake stronger claims. To see what the players and the side are capable of in situations like these. That’s what the League Cup is for. That's all the League Cup is for, at least at this stage of the competition.

24 September 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Southampton

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

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

You want to know how scrappy a Liverpool performance this was? One statistic stood out to me.

Liverpool took 12 shots – which is hilariously low for a Liverpool side at Anfield; only one league match at Anfield saw fewer last season, the 2-2 with Tottenham. That's not entirely out of the ordinary; nine shots led to three goals in the first half, so there was little need to keep pushing.

Even more noticeable was that Liverpool only “created” four chances. 12 shots, but only four key passes. Through 90 minutes. At Anfield. Against a side that was nearly relegated last season.

• Shaqiri's 4th minute cross for Firmino's errant header
• Mane's throughball for Shaqiri, leading to the blocked shot own goal
• Alexander-Arnold's corner for Matip's goal in the 21st minute
• Firmino's perfect long ball for Salah in the 43rd, which almost resulted in one of the most fun goals ever

That's it. Every other shot came from a shot rebound, direct free kick, or picking up a loose clearance/tackle/block from a Southampton player.

Just look at all those Southampton tackles – and, to a lesser extent, interceptions – inside or just outside the penalty area. Southampton sat deep – both in the first half when using Romeu as a defensive midfielder rather than their usual 4-4-2 formation, then when switching to damage control three-at-the-back in the second half. And they did it reasonably well, at least in open play.

So it's no real surprise that all the goals in this match came from set play situations.

What is a surprise is that Liverpool got three goals from set play situations. Which hadn't been firing for Liverpool yet this season, with only Sturridge and Wijnaldum scoring from corners against West Ham and Tottenham respectively. Liverpool only scored twice from set plays in the same match twice last season: 3-3 Sevilla and 5-1 Brighton. Never three.

Special shout-out for Shaqiri, whose part in two of those set plays directly led to Liverpool goals: the shot cannoning off two Southampton players for a fortunate own goal, then a banger of a free kick off the crossbar, with Salah first to the rebound. He was absolutely the highlight of the first half. Which makes sense given that Liverpool's new formation seemed almost designed to get him going.

It was odd to see Klopp change formations, but Shaqiri did well in the role. I enjoy this touch map.

The vast majority were in the half-spaces, inside channels on both left and right. Otherwise known as Adam Lallana Spaces, the part of the pitch where Liverpool can better connect midfield and attack when pushing against a deep defense, the sort of positions where a player can receive possession, turn, and try to find one of Salah, Firmino, or Mané, or run at retreating defenders.

But, still, Liverpool were somewhat unbalanced. Liverpool weren't quite clicking in attack, with Firmino and Mané playing in less familiar wide positions and Salah both central and by far the furthest forward. Southampton were getting shots, even if not great and usually closed down. So Liverpool went back to basics, Shaqiri – still in his adjustment phase – went back to the bench, and the more comfortable 4-3-3 completely killed the game now that Liverpool were comfortably ahead.

And, once again, even if it wasn't the greatest performance, Liverpool won. Liverpool won without the front three still nowhere near as potent as we're used to, with an unfamiliar first-half formation, with Keïta and Milner and Gomez left out of the starting XI.

Liverpool won with continued good defending, even if the first half performance underwhelmed at times, leading to Shaqiri's halftime substitution. Southampton were allowed far too many shots in the first half, but Liverpool dealt with them excellently, blocking five of the six and putting Vestergaard under enough pressure to head a 12th-minute corner well off-target.

And Liverpool won despite having played a tough midweek match.

Liverpool only won once after Champions League group games last season. A 1-1 draw with Burnley after a 2-2 draw at Sevilla. 1-1 at Newcastle after 1-1 at Spartak. 1-4 Tottenham after Maribor away, 1-1 with Chelsea after Sevilla at home, 1-1 Everton after Spartak at home. The only win came at West Ham after beating Maribor 3-0 at Anfield. And the trend continued in the knockout rounds, with wins over West Ham and Bournemouth following CL games, but draws with Everton and Stoke and losses to United and Chelsea.

One swallow, not a summer, etc. but this seems a potential harbinger of Liverpool's increasing strength in depth. As was the new formation and Shaqiri's full debut. As was Matip coming into defense, then Gomez replacing van Dijk with Liverpool still almost wholly untroubled and with yet another Anfield clean sheet. Sturridge had to settle for a place on the bench, without appearing, after an outstanding match against PSG. Both Keïta and Milner were only used as substitutes, while Fabinho's played all of one minute so far this season.

Once again, we're happy. Liverpool can still play better, but all signs still point to better being just around the corner. The best part of last season's side has the most room for improvement, with both depth and defending already notably better.

And Liverpool keep winning. That always helps.

22 September 2018

Liverpool 3-0 Southampton

Hoedt OG 10'
Matip 21'
Salah 45+2'

We’ve been saying “routine” a lot lately, but yeah, that was as routine as routine gets.

Mediocre but dominant. Comfortable but not remarkable. Good but nowhere near great.

Which I’m completely okay with.

To be fair, it was a different Liverpool which scored three goals in the first half. Shaqiri came in for Milner, the most advanced of the midfield three, with Keïta also returning to the bench for Henderson. We got the regular front three with Firmino in place of Sturridge, but the arrangement differed, with Firmino on the left, Mané on the right, and Salah central. And Matip also replaced Gomez, the first time we’ve seen a different back five this season.

Three goals still came, with Salah perpetually dangerous in a central role, the midfield impressive, and Shaqiri at the heart of two of the three strikes.

All three of Liverpool’s goals were rugged rather than refined, as has been the story of the season so far. An own goal, Shaqiri’s shot twice deflected off Southampton players. A set play goal, with Matip heading Alexander-Arnold’s corner into the net rather than into the sky. And a rebound from a yard out, Salah’s tap-in from Shaqiri’s free kick off the crossbar.

And zero goals still came for Southampton, with five of six first-half shots blocked by Liverpool players, as well as a tame corner header off-target after Liverpool had already scored.

3-0 at halftime meant that this match was over. Liverpool have made 2-0 leads nervous in the last three matches, allowing consolations against Leicester and Tottenham then allowing PSG back in the game before that late late late winner, but 3-0 is done, 3-0 is dusted, 3-0 is goodnight nurse.

Incidentally, Liverpool have now scored in the 45th minute or added time in four the first six league matches. The game-killing second against West Ham, the game-winning opener at Palace, the eventual game-winning second at Leicester, and the game-killing third today. Liverpool scored two – with the opposition scoring four – at that time through all of last season.

So, the formality of a second half?

I have a question. Honestly. Is it more demeaning when you run up the score – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – or when you completely turn off the gas, happy to stifle and suffocate and not really counter and just pass around the middle third? Is it worse when you get bricked or when your opponent proves its superiority by playing keep away, an old brother holding the younger at arms' length while he's punching nothing but air?

Milner replaced Shaqiri in what had to be a pre-planned substitution. Liverpool’s front three reverted to the more usual positioning. And Liverpool absolutely smothered the match into oblivion, seemingly happy to toy with Southampton.

There were a couple of counter-attack opportunities, breaking down at inopportune times or reasonably blocked or tackled by Southampton players. There was still an awful lot of counter-pressing. But neither side registered a second-half shot until the 85th minute, when Robertson smashed a volley from a knocked-around corner well over the bar. That’s how slow a death this half was. It picked up a bit after that, as Salah had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside following Milner and Firmino's blocked efforts, then Austin finally put a Southampton shot on-target, forcing a routine near post save from Alisson after Liverpool finally allowed a long ball over the top to find a recipient.

There was more action in the final five minutes of the half than the 40 which came before. And the only blemish in the half was van Dijk off with a knock in the 55th minute, further discomfort from a bruised rib against PSG, reportedly very much precautionary and very much not a real problem for next weekend.

So that’s that. The “easiest” match of the month going almost exactly as it should have. Sure, more goals would’ve been fun. Better finishing would’ve been fun. But, as always, it’s hard to complain about 3-0.

That’s now seven consecutive wins to start the season. Eight consecutive clean sheets at Anfield in the league. Southampton haven’t scored in a league match against Liverpool since March 2016, held without for five straight. That last Southampton league goal against Liverpool was scored by Sadio Mané.

Liverpool are good, in all areas of the pitch and in all phases of play, and Liverpool keep going. Again. And we’re all well aware how Liverpool can and will be even better.

21 September 2018

Liverpool v Southampton 09.22.18

Liverpool v Southampton 09.22.18

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Gold

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.11.18
3-0 Liverpool (a) 11.18.17
0-0 (h) 05.07.17
0-1 Southampton (h; League Cup) 01.25.17

Last matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 PSG (h); 2-1 Tottenham (a); 2-1 Leicester (a)
Leicester: 2-2 Brighton (h); 2-0 Palace (a); 1-0 Brighton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 4; Firmino, Salah 2; Milner, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1
Southampton: Ings 3; Højbjerg 2; Bertrand 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

Normal service has resumed. First, I am deeply appreciative of all who responded to this Twitter thread.

Second, I see I didn’t miss much. Just a couple of routine wins. Yawn.

So, yeah, Liverpool have been pretty impressive. A 2-1 win at Tottenham that wouldn’t have looked odd had it finished 3-0 instead, a fixture that finished 1-4 last season. 3-2 against PSG’s millions, which wouldn’t have looked odd had it finished 3-1 or 4-1. And yet that one almost finished 2-2, if not for late Firmino heroics. A match that almost certainly would’ve finished 2-2 last season, just as it did in Liverpool’s first Champions League group game in 2017-18.

There’s been some steel added to Liverpool’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot gloves so far this season. And Liverpool, aside from the opening day, are yet to truly rock or sock opponents as we know they’re capable of.

Liverpool have won six games on the spin and Liverpool have still been nowhere near their best. That bodes well.

As per usual, I doubt there will be many line-up changes. The back five’s set. Firmino should come back in for Sturridge. There will probably be one change in midfield: Keïta will return, but whether it’s for Wijnaldum or Henderson or Milner is little more than a guess. Maybe Salah or Mané get a game off, but I suspect those changes and more will come midweek.

Meanwhile, Southampton will play 4-4-2. And, thankfully, Southampton’s best player won’t be available. Danny Ings; you may have heard of him. Ineligible due to the terms of his loan. See, there is actually a benefit to loan-now, sell-next-season.

Otherwise, Southampton have been very Southampton and very Mark Hughes. Only a little bit of turnover from last season, adding Ings up front because goals were last season's biggest issue, Elyounoussi in place of Tadic, Vestergaard as van Dijk’s replacement, and Gunn as back-up keeper, at least for now. Højbjerg and Lemina have cemented their midfield places ahead of Romeu, Davis, and Ward-Prowse. And, like last season, Southampton are sometimes competent and sometime lost.

Last week’s 2-2 against Brighton is a perfect example. They were, to be blunt, dominant for the first two-thirds of the match, even more than Liverpool were against the same side at Anfield. A first-half goal, then a penalty in the 65th minute. 2-0, 25 minutes to go, game over. Or not. Foot off the gas, Brighton immediately pull one back, Southampton fall apart, changes don’t help, Brighton win and score an injury time penalty to level matters. Incidentally, Brighton’s first goal came from a set play, the second came from a penalty following a set play. Three of Liverpool's 11 league goals this season have come from set plays.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Which is a microcosm of Southampton's season so far. A dreary 0-0 opener against Burnley – who’ve yet to win in the league and are already out of the EL – then 2-1 losses against Everton and Leicester, but then wins over Brighton (in the League Cup) and Palace, but then that last good then bad draw with Brighton.

To be fair, Southampton have given Liverpool issues recently. 2016-17 is stronger in the memory, four matches without for Liverpool, but that was under a different Southampton manager and against a different Liverpool. Last season was 3-0 and 2-0, but the 2-0 was a lot closer than the scoreline suggests. An early Liverpool goal, but then four Southampton shots on-target, including one clear-cut chance. It wouldn't have surprised had Southampton scored and had Southampton scored it's potentially a different game. But Karius saved all four, then a second Liverpool goal came just before halftime, then the second half was a formality.

So, just so you know, Southampton can actually attack at times.

Southampton’s XI is pretty well set, especially without Ings. McCarthy; Cedric, Vestergaard, Hoedt, Bertrand; Elyounoussi, Lemina, Højbjerg, Redmond; Austin, Long. Maybe Gabbiadini instead of Austin; Ward-Prowse instead of Elyounoussi.

4-4-2. Potentially dangerous, potentially secure. Potentially conceding four in an hour.

This is the game where past Liverpools – at least of recent vintage – would have failed. A deserved win at Tottenham, a ground and fixture where Liverpool were humbled last season. An exhilarating win over Paris St-Germain. Two fixtures against Chelsea, then Napoli, then Manchester City to come in the next two weeks.

This is the odd match out. This is the one that Liverpool can’t underestimate, because there’s no underestimating the others. This is the one that Liverpool can’t look past, the only one with the potential for looking past.

This is the one where Liverpool need to put lesser opposition to the sword they deserve.

03 September 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Leicester

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

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

I did not enjoy Leicester taking the game to Liverpool.

Leicester out-possessed Liverpool, not just after Liverpool scored what should have been the game-killing second, but from the 20th minute on. They're the first non-top-six side to do so since Southampton last season, where Liverpool won 2-0 after two first half goals and were happy to concede possession amidst a run of packed fixtures and European competition. That was the only non-top-six match last season where Liverpool had less of the ball than their opponents.

Leicester out-pressed Liverpool, completing more tackles in Liverpool's half than Liverpool did in Leicester's.

Leicester out-shot Liverpool, something often unimaginable, even if game state had almost as much to do with it as Leicester's style of play.

Leicester made it hard for Liverpool do to Liverpool. Even if that didn't happen until Liverpool had already scored.

And once Leicester took the game to Liverpool, Liverpool had no outlet.

The swarming attack, and compact midfield and defense made it hard for Liverpool to build possession. And when that happens, Liverpool often look long. Especially when Liverpool have a lead, because Salah, Mané, and Firmino are that dangerous on quick counter-attacks.

That didn't happen on Saturday.

So many errant long passes, considering how good van Dijk, Gomez, Alexander-Arnold, and Henderson are from range. So many attackers surprisingly well-marshalled by Leicester defenders, with Mané and Salah often unable to get down the flanks.

And when Liverpool did get the ball forward, usually up to Firmino, the center forward simply could not hold up play. His nine unsuccessful touches were, by far, a high for a Liverpool player in the first four games. Only Solanke had more in a league match last season, with ten in the 0-0 at Everton; Firmino's high in a league match last season was six, in three different fixtures. And he was also dispossessed five times – joint-worst with Wijnaldum – Salah at Brighton was the only Liverpool player dispossessed more often in a match so far this season.

That two of the three midfielders barely played more than a handful of passes in the attacking third isn't especially helpful either, with neither Wijnaldum or Henderson creating a single chance. I realize it's not necessarily either's responsibility – especially Henderson – but it's also no coincidence that Liverpool looked better against this type of opposition once Keïta came on. To be fair, Milner was better, but Milner's three key passes also all came from corners.

And, subsequently, Liverpool struggled to create chances, especially after the first 20 minutes.

Liverpool took ten or fewer shots in just five league matches last season: 0-5 at Manchester City, 2-2 v Tottenham, 0-0 at Everton, 2-2 at West Brom, and 0-1 at Chelsea. Liverpool were out-shot in just five league matches last season: 0-5 at City, 1-4 at Tottenham, 2-2 v Tottenham, 2-2 at West Brom, and 0-1 at Chelsea.

Liverpool did not win any of those fixtures last season.

Liverpool won this one. Liverpool could have won this one 2-0, if not comfortably than at least more comfortable than it was if not for one crazy moment.

That April draw at West Brom is a good parallel to Saturday's match.

An early kickoff. A non-top-six side that's given Liverpool problems in the past. A lack of shots but an early goal, then what should be the game-killing second. But then mistakes. But then collapse. Two late goals conceded, from two set plays – a haphazard scramble, then an individual error on the offside line.

Liverpool may have conceded on Saturday, and in an incredibly dumb manner, but they just conceded once. And despite our collective repeated heart attacks, Leicester rarely threatened after Ghezzal's goal. Their only shot was from Wilfred Ndidi, a defense midfielder, from 25 yards out. In the 88th minute. Almost immediately blocked by Naby Keïta.

Liverpool shelled reasonably well over the last half hour, keeping Leicester at bay, keeping Leicester out of the penalty box. Similar to the first half defensive performance where five of Leicester six shots came from outside the box, rather than the first 15-20 minutes of the second half where Leicester actually looked threatening.

And both of Leicester's late set plays went nowhere. Look, we're all still traumatized by last season's set play defense. With reason. Late corners and free kicks end in scrambles that lead to goals. No matter the increasing infrequency, we still remember.

In added time, Van Dijk cleared a free kick behind, then van Dijk headed a corner away. Incidentally, Liverpool have allowed just four shots from set plays so far this season: two from West Ham on corners (Balbuena easily saved, Antonio awkward and well off-target), Milivojevic's free kick that Alisson's excellently saved, and Maddison's free kick into the wall on Saturday. That's it. 15 opposition corners in the last three matches. Zero opposition shots.

It may be as much signal as noise, but that this result came in an early Saturday kick-off makes it even more encouraging. Because Liverpool very much suffered in those matches last season.

That was the first early Saturday kick-off which Liverpool won since Palace away at the end of March. Which was the only early Saturday kick-off Liverpool won last season, with 1W-5D-2L in those matches.

So while the style of play, subpar Liverpool performance, and procession of the match may have been similar to some of these fixtures last season, the result wasn't.

As against Brighton – Liverpool's first 1-0 win in a calendar year – Liverpool won a match when not at its best. Liverpool won a match where the opposition kept Liverpool from doing what Liverpool are capable of doing for the majority of the match. Liverpool won a match where the opposition was the better side for the majority of the match.

Liverpool won a match that they'd most likely have drawn last season.

01 September 2018

Liverpool 2-1 Leicester

Mané 10'
Firmino 45'
Ghezzal 63'

That was over-flowing dumpster set on fire careening down a hill. That was so bad. So, so bad.

Liverpool still won.

Well, let's be slightly fairer. The first 15 minutes weren't bad. The first 15 minutes were actually good, against a side that gave Liverpool tough matches in all three of last season's meetings. Liverpool should have scored within four minutes, with Firmino's clear-cut chance saved and Salah's even-more-clear-cut chance put wide. Liverpool did score within 10 minutes, with Robertson trucking through Ricardo Pereira, centering for Mané, delightfully taken in stride after a fortunate deflection from Maguire, controlled and toe-poked past Schmeichel for his fourth in four games.

Liverpool were pressing, Liverpool were creating great chances, Liverpool were ahead and seemed likely to get more.

And then they weren't.

I guess there's a reason that Claude Puel has one of the best head-to-head records of any manager with multiple matches against Jürgen Klopp. Now Liverpool can't get around Leicester's front-four press. Now Liverpool can't pass through a congested midfield, with Ndidi and Mendy terrorizing Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Milner. Now Liverpool can't even boot it long, with Salah and Mané unable to get free from markers, with Firmino unable to hold up play when actually on the ball.

But at least Liverpool continued to limit Leicester. Five of Leicester's six first-half shots were from nowhere and went nowhere close. The lone from inside the box, Gray from Ghezzal's throughball, was from a slightly acute angle, closely marked by Gomez, and well saved by Alisson.

And then Liverpool get a second, scoring just before halftime for the third time in four matches. Milner's corner, Firmino's header, slipping away from Maddison with everyone else watching Gomez. Perfect placement, strong power, 2-0. Now Liverpool are where they need to be. Now Liverpool will regroup and kill the match in the second half. We're done here, yeah?

Nope. Not only do Leicester remain the better side, but Leicester now have actual, honestly good chances. Ghezzal fizzes a low cross through the penalty area, one that someone really should have gotten onto. Gomez makes an enormous block after Maddison slithers around and away from van Dijk and Robertson. Wes Morgan somehow can't shoot when wide open after Albrighton flicks on a short corner.

And then disaster. The disaster we'd all feared. The disaster that nearly happened last week.

I'll roll the tape back a little further than most. We should have never reached the point where true disaster happened. Liverpool are again struggling to get through midfield after reclaiming possession. Henderson could have cleared rather than playing to a surrounded Gomez. Henderson, after receiving back from Gomez, fires a difficult ball to van Dijk's knees rather than a calmer pass or, you know, just clearing it himself. Van Dijk's back pass is away from Alisson, behind him and wide to the byline, where the keeper has to collect before being able to look up.

But then Alisson did an utter madness, trying to Cruyff turn away from Iheanacho rather than boot clear when he had the time and space, as he did a couple of times last week. And this time he utterly failed, with Iheanacho reading the move, stealing the ball, and centering for Ghezzal to slam in.

A mistake like this seemed inevitable. And if it's inevitable, I guess it's for the best it happened here rather than, say, last week against Brighton when Liverpool had just a one-goal lead. I'd also say "don't do it again" but I try not to be overly optimistic. Just maybe hopefully learn from it.

And now it's 2-1 and Leicester are truly in this and there are still 30 minutes left. And we're actually afraid for the first time this season.

To Liverpool's credit, Leicester had just one shot after Ghezzal's goal: Ndidi from 25 yards swiftly blocked. Liverpool calmed a little, at least after the substitutions, with Keïta and Shaqiri for Henderson and Salah helping matters. Liverpool had slightly more possession. The defense didn't do anything stupid, anything else at least, aside from Milner giving away a late free kick which led to a corner which led to nothing. But Liverpool remained horrific on the counter and in possession. Absolutely horrific.

Four consecutive wins, four from four for the first time since 1990-91, and I'm actually happy Liverpool have an international break coming up. Each of these four matches has been progressively worse, at least in midfield and attack. Mané took his goal excellently, and was the brightest of Liverpool's attackers when Liverpool were actually attacking, but that's absolutely grading on a curve. None of Liverpool's front three truly played well, for the third consecutive match. Salah was wasteful, Salah was too easily handled by Maguire and Chilwell. Firmino worked his butt off out of possession, but couldn't keep possession in the slightest bit when transitioning. Every final ball on the counter was off, everyone ran into rather than around defenders.

And the midfield was just as culpable. If not more so. Henderson's usually fantastic when Liverpool dominate possession, crucial to recovering clearances and pinning defenses back. He's a lot less so when the opposition presses and controls, often tearing around the defensive third and leaving gaps in the middle, unable to pass through the press and congestion. Similar goes for Wijnaldum and Milner, neither incisive enough nor good enough with the ball at feet to get through players. This is a big reason why Keïta – who truly didn't play well last week against Brighton – made such a difference when coming on; he's a player who does get into the spaces needed to move forward and, more importantly, can move the ball forward by himself. It's also why Liverpool will desperately miss Oxlade-Chamberlain at times this season.

But at least Joe Gomez was fantastic. So, so good. Van Dijk did enough, especially when going no-nonsense head away and hoof clear after Liverpool conceded. Liverpool's defense, moment of madness aside, was Liverpool's best feature for the third consecutive match. Liverpool doesn't have that moment of madness and we're laughing about how good this defense has been.

The overall play hasn't been good enough since Liverpool rolled what's been a terrible West Ham side so far on opening day. It hasn't been anywhere near what Liverpool are capable of doing.

But it's still been good enough to take four wins from four matches.