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.