09 October 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

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

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

Yes, yes. We’ve talked enough about how Liverpool’s attack is a little bit scary right now. And not scary in the “we’re going to disembowel you and then show you the bowels” way from the majority of last season but scary in the “what happened why don’t you love us anymore” way.

Two consecutive games without a Liverpool goal, something which hasn’t happened since January 2017, in the FA and League Cups rather than Champions League and Premier League. Four consecutive games without a goal from Salah, Firmino, or Mané; the longest stretch last season was three games, 1-1s against Spartak and Newcastle before 0-0 against United, almost exactly a year ago, with Coutinho scoring both goals.

The front three just aren’t clicking. They’re snatching at shots and passes. Confidence, so ephemeral and intangible, seems to be getting worse with each failed touch. Neither Firmino nor Mané took a shot or created a chance on Sunday, even if Salah looked a bit better than in the previous two matches. The midfield isn’t picking up the slack, can’t quite pick up the slack, especially in regards to creativity.

It’s not great. But it’s also happening against Chelsea, Napoli, and now Manchester City. Early in the season, before everyone’s seemingly in peak form – especially after a World Cup summer – with fixture congestion already piling up between unnecessary international breaks. Against that slate of teams.

It might not be great, it might not be fun, but at least it’s understandable, and chances are that it’ll improve. Just take a look at Liverpool’s upcoming fixtures. Away at Arsenal aside, the next month and a half of matches ain’t exactly a murderer’s row.

So let’s talk about some good. Let’s again talk about Liverpool’s defense. Penalty aside, Liverpool remains good at the defense. Especially at Anfield.

Liverpool have not allowed a league goal at Anfield since West Ham’s consolation in the 4-1 win back in February. There have been nine clean sheets since – against Newcastle, Watford, Bournemouth, Stoke, Brighton, West Ham, Brighton, Southampton, and City. Liverpool are averaging an allowed 1.44 shots on-target in those nine matches, with just 5.33 shots allowed in total per match. Liverpool have allowed just five clear-cut chances in those nine games, including only two this season – Groß’s late chance for Brighton saved by Alisson and Mahrez’s penalty miss.

To be fair, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. With one more shot on-target, specifically Mahrez’s penalty, this is a different result with different feelings and Liverpool’s clean sheet streak is over. Fine margins when sides are this evenly matched, etc etc.

That said, Manchester City’s six shots were the fewest they’ve had in a league match since Guardiola became manager. This was the first time that City have been held scoreless this season and only the third time in a league match since the start of last season.

Manchester City are not an easy side to keep quiet or keep out, and Liverpool did so, even if they needed some luck at the end. Manchester City felt the need to change its style to counter-act Liverpool, even a Liverpool that’s not quite firing at the moment. Not only were Manchester City less offensive, Liverpool didn’t allow City that much offense, with just one first half shot despite almost 58% possession.

Four games without a win ain’t great. Four games with just two goals scored – and none from Liverpool’s usual scorers – ain’t great. But Liverpool most certainly are not in a bad place at the moment. And it’s the defense that’s keeping them there.

07 October 2018

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

You want to see two sides canceling each other out? That was two sides canceling each other out.

Okay, obviously no one wants to see two sides canceling each other out. It’s boring. That’s not to say this was a boring match, but it was a very conservative match, from two sides that are usually the opposite of conservative.

It’s both recognition of Liverpool and City’s respective threats but also the overload that’s come during the last few weeks, both sides playing twice a week since returning from the last international break, with players not yet at the capacity for that since the season’s still only just started.

We got basically a full-strength side from each, but with at least one crucial change. Gomez replaced Alexander-Arnold at right-back, taller and more defensive, and capable of long throws in the attacking zone, with Lovren coming in to partner van Dijk. City were more a 4-2-3-1 than the usual 4-3-3, with Bernardo Silva forming a double pivot with Fernandinho. Both managers kept their usually very attacking fullbacks restrained, especially City, making sure there were players back for long passes over the top, toward Salah and Mahrez/Sterling respectively.

And the changes seemed to work exactly as each manager hoped. Lovren was excellent, with more than a few last ditch tackles and blocks on both Agüero and Gabriel Jesus. Bernardo Silva was similarly influential for City, leading that side in tackles. None of the dangerous wide attackers – Salah, Mané, Mahrez, or Sterling – did much of anything. None were allowed to do much of anything.

Liverpool pressed well, avoiding City’s center backs but disrupting play as soon as City entered the midfield zone. Liverpool once again had to cope with an early midfield injury, with Keïta replacing Milner in the 29th minute.

So we got a lot of turnovers in the center of the pitch, an excellent tackle or interception, clearance, lather, rinse, repeat. Teams averaging 22 and 15 shots per match respectively combined for all of 13. Possession was basically equal, shot totals were basically equal, and xG would have been basically equal if not for Manchester City’s penalty, as Mahrez skied a spot kick after van Dijk fouled Sané in the 86th minute. That’d have been a hell of a way to lose after another commendable defensive performance, so I really appreciate pulling a Charlie Adam, Riyad.

It was frenetic at times, it was fun to watch every now and then, but it was mostly very much a stalemate, and purposefully so.

Even though 0-0 certainly isn’t a bad result, this is the first time this season that Liverpool’s gotten a worse result this season than in last season’s equivalent fixture. City will arguably be more aggrieved – their best performance at Anfield in years, better chances than Liverpool created, and that missed penalty as well as two other no-calls.

In isolation, it’s fine, this is fine. Life never comes in isolation. Liverpool are now four matches without a win, failing to score in two of those four and two goals from Sturridge in the other two. Liverpool followed up what was arguably the worst attacking performance since Klopp became manager with another match where Liverpool rarely if ever looked like scoring.

We’re now four matches without a goal from Salah, Firmino, or Mané. I’ll look later but I reckon it’s safe to assume that hasn’t happened often over the last couple of seasons.

That said, Liverpool are now through this period between international breaks unbeaten in the league, with eight points out of 12 from Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), Chelsea (a), and City (h). Liverpool are level on points with both City and Chelsea, behind both only on goal difference. Joint-top, even though we’ve yet to see Liverpool at its best this season.

We’re gonna need evidence soon, but that Liverpool are here now despite the play over the last few weeks still suggests better is on its way.

06 October 2018

Liverpool v Manchester City 10.07.18

11:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a; CL) 04.10.18
3-0 Liverpool (h; CL) 04.04.18
4-3 Liverpool (h) 01.14.18
0-5 City (a) 09.27.17

Last matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Napoli (a); 1-1 Chelsea (a); 1-2 Chelsea (h)
City: 2-1 Hoffenheim (a); 2-0 Brighton (h); 3-0 Oxford (a)

Goal scorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 4; Salah 3; Firmino, Sturridge 2; Matip, Milner, Wijnaldum 1
City: Agüero 5; Sterling 4; Mahrez, B Silva, D Silva 2; Gundogan, Jesus, Laporte, Sane, Walker 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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


The narrative surrounding any Liverpool match often feels overwhelming and overwrought, but this’ll be even more so.

The champions against the contenders. The rebels against the evil empire. Is Liverpool ready to actually make a run at the title? This match will, of course, definitively tell us either way. Here, this is the season, right here. In the first week of October. Hold onto your butts.

So the last three games haven’t been great.

Loss, draw, loss. None impressive, and two of those with a full-strength side. The defense has been mostly impressively good, but the midfield’s unperformed – at least in regards to creativity – and the attack’s misfired. Does that mean changes tomorrow? Sturridge or Shaqiri or Fabinho starting? Maybe a 4-2-3-1, as against Southampton, even though Southampton and City are two very different opponents, a formation likely better able to create for the front three if the front three can’t create for themselves? Maybe 4-4-2, with both Firmino and Sturridge – or Firmino and Salah – up top?

Probably not. We know Liverpool’s preferred shape, we know Liverpool’s preferred players, even also knowing Liverpool’s increased strength in depth. That depth has manifested far more as options off the bench rather than rotation in starting XIs. At least guessing the midfield is a bit easier than usual. Keïta is supposedly available, but given how weird and frightening backs can be, I’d be surprised. More likely is Fabinho finally getting a run in the league.

Meanwhile, you may have heard that Manchester City are good. Draw with Wolves and Champions League loss to Lyon aside, they’ve been as brutal as ever. Most goals per game, shots per game, possession per game, and the highest pass accuracy in the league. Fewest shots allowed, lowest xG per shot, and joint-fewest goals conceded – along with Liverpool. Level on points with Liverpool, although ahead on goal difference having waxed both Huddersfield and Cardiff by five goals already this season.

Let’s go with Ederson; Walker, Kompany, Otamendi, Laporte; D Silva, Fernandinho, Gündogan; Sterling, Agüero, Sané. That seems the most familiar. But guessing City’s XI is never easy; it’s not as if City don’t have other options, whether in personnel or formation. There are Mahrez or Jesus in attack. Bernardo Silva in either midfield or attack. Both Mendy and de Bruyne could return from injury, almost certainly hosed down with horse placenta by some shady "doctor" during the week. 3-5-2 is possible if Mendy’s fit; 4-4-2 is possible with both Agüero and Jesus up front.

Last season’s matches with Manchester City were wild, exactly what blitzkrieg heavy metal football should be. Three of the four were wild in a good way, a 4-3 league win that was literally the perfect encapsulation of last season’s Liverpool and those two dramatic Champions League victories. The other match, as I suspect you remember, was wild in a very bad way. Manchester City, so dominant in the league, were beaten three out of four times by this Liverpool side.

It will be hard for Liverpool to replicate that. It is up to Liverpool to replicate that.

04 October 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Napoli

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

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

So, yeah, none of us want to relive that.

That's about as bad as it's gotten since Klopp became manager. There have been worse results. There have been worse performances, at least in Klopp's first season. But this was about as bad as it gets, especially considering how the side's evolved since 2015-16 and especially since the front three has become that front three.

Yesterday’s match at Napoli saw the fewest Liverpool shots since Klopp became manager. The lowest Expected Goals total since Klopp became manager. The only time we haven't seen either a shot on-target or even a shot from inside the box since Klopp became manager.

And Liverpool still nearly came away with a point if not for a last-second goal, Mertens pulling van Dijk out wide, Callejon getting behind Robertson, and Gomez not quite quick enough to stay with Insigne. The defense finally, truly lost its shape without being able to recover. Alisson had saved a clear-cut chance just minutes before, two fingertips pushing Mertens’ shot onto the crossbar. He couldn’t save Liverpool a second time.

So that sucked. A bunch. So this is gonna be short.

There's more than enough blame to go around. The worst performance from a front three that's been struggling surprisingly often this season. A lack of rotation in between the autumn international breaks potentially catching up to the side. That Napoli is a difficult place to travel to, that Ancelotti's a difficult manager to face in Europe, that Liverpool might have been already thinking about Sunday's match against Manchester City.

Lots went wrong, and a lot of it we can hope is a one-off.

I'm gonna briefly focus on the midfield.

Yikes. 17 passes from Henderson, Milner, Wijnaldum and Keïta to Firmino, Salah, and Mané. Just one into the penalty box. Just five into the final third. No chances created.

Compare that to recent away matches at Chelsea and Tottenham. Liverpool’s midfielders – Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner, and Keïta – completed 33 passes to the attackers – Firmino, Salah, Mane, and Shaqiri. Multiple came in both the penalty box and final third, and Milner created a clear-cut chance for Firmino. Similar goes for the Spurs game, with 28 passes from Liverpool’s midfielders to Liverpool’s attackers, and both Milner and Wijnaldum created chances for Mané.

I know these aren’t dramatically large margins. And we knew that Liverpool’s midfielders weren’t the most creative going into both the season and match. Milner had 11 assists last season, but the majority came from set plays; the other midfielders with the most assists last season were Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coutinho, and Emre Can and, well.

Yesterday might have gone differently had Keïta not gone off in the 19th minute with a freaky frightening back injury, the midfielder most likely to break through Napoli lines. Regardless, this highlights a potential problem, especially when the front three aren’t doing all those wonderful front three things.

The first half was helter skelter, with both sides looking for long balls with the center of the pitch compact as all get out. The second half saw Napoli increasingly turn the screws, both as Liverpool tired and as substitutions – Verdi for Fabian, increasing the doubled-up pressure on Alexander-Arnold, and Mertens for Milik, a far more mobile player able to create space for Insigne – improved the home side.

Liverpool again defended well, but that’s about all Liverpool did well as the front three and midfield increasingly flailed and failed, and all that Napoli pressure finally bore fruit. At about the worst possible time.

Liverpool are now winless in three. The League Cup loss to Chelsea still only matters because I’m mad that Liverpool conceded a lead late on. The league draw at Chelsea still feels like a point gained rather than two lost. But this loss, coming to a late goal, exacerbates the problems and the fears from the previous two results even more.

Chickens haven’t quite come home to roost, but they’re circling the coop.

City on Sunday.

01 October 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

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

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

The finishing pixie is a cruel mistress.

Liverpool have seemingly done enough to be level, but Liverpool are behind 0-1, having failed to convert on 12 shots, three of which were clear-cut chances. So far this season, Liverpool have converted just seven of 18 clear-cut chances in the league – 38.9%, below last season's 44.9% average.

Liverpool had two clear-cut chances cleared off the line by defenders in the same match for the first time under Klopp. Having a clear-cut chance blocked on the goal line only happened four times in the entire league campaign in each of the last two seasons.

Mo Salah, Liverpool's attacking center-piece, registered four shots through 66 minutes. Two off-target, one easily saved, and one of those clear-cut chances cleared off the line. He's only ("only") scored three goals so far this season, having tallied twice as many by this point last season, and he's hauled off in the 66th minute for Shaqiri, who proceeds to miss a clear-cut chance of his own.

Liverpool are losing and it feels like they shouldn't be and it's gonna be a first loss of the season and the same result as in this fixture last season and yeah, everything sucks.

And then Liverpool score an unbelievable equalizer from the Liverpool shot that’s least likely to go in. Liverpool score a goal from outside the box for the first time this season. Liverpool last scored from outside the box came in the 5-2 win over Roma back in April, Salah from inside the penalty arc. You’ve got to go back to Emre Can’s wallop against Huddersfield in January to find one in the Premier League.

A goal like that all but cancels out everything that came before in my mind. A goal like that makes a draw feel like a win. Especially when it comes that late in the match. Especially when it comes from Daniel Sturridge, who you can’t help but love with every fiber of your being after the last few seasons he’s had and everything he says and does and who’s now joint-top scorer in all competitions so far this season with four goals even though he’s played all of 187 minutes. With almost half of those minutes coming in one league cup match.

Swings and roundabouts, I guess. The finishing pixie, she’s cruel and she’s kind.

And to be fair, the finishing pixie was cruel to both sides. Alisson saved two Chelsea clear-cut chances – the first Liverpool keeper to do so in a match since Mignolet at Manchester City more than a year ago, a match that Liverpool still lost 0-5 – while Morata and Marcos Alonso both missed with headers in the second half.

Maybe we should give the respective defenses a modicum of credit here, whether it’s Alisson’s saves or Luiz and Rudiger’s blocks or Gomez and van Dijk’s recovery pace or van Dijk’s five aerial duel wins leading the way in the match. Even though both sides had chances – Chelsea through those through balls and long passes behind Liverpool’s high line, Liverpool through pressing and that front three’s endeavor even when not at their best – both defenses were more impressive their their attacking counterparts.

Liverpool have conceded just three goals through seven league games. They conceded 12 through the first seven games last season. They conceded nine goals in last season's equivalent seven fixtures.

This was the first time that a Liverpool opponent had a higher xG total than Liverpool this season and the first time that an opponent registered more than 1.0 xG against Liverpool in the league this season. But that's the quality of Chelsea compared to Liverpool's previous opponents. And Liverpool still both held Chelsea to a single goal and got a point out of the match.

Meanwhile, it’s not as if it was all bad in attack. As cliche as it can be, Liverpool were still getting in those positions. It’s small consolation if you don’t find an equalizer out of the blue, but you only truly worry when you’re not getting in those positions.

Firmino played four of Liverpool’s ten key passes, most notably the clear-cut chance for Salah via through ball in the first half and the cutback for Mané's saved shot in the 58th; it’s the first time he’s created more than two chances in a match this season.

Salah, for all the talk that he was too easily muscled off the ball by defenders, completed four out of five attempted dribbles; both Firmino and Many lost possession more often, although that the latter two played the full 90 minutes admittedly makes a difference.

Liverpool scored a late winner or equalizer for the second time in nine matches. That only happened twice last season by the most generous of metrics; there was 2-1 Burnley but also 2-2 Tottenham, with Salah's 90th minute goal that should have been a winner, but then we got a nonsense penalty so it's not really a winner or an equalizer but hell we'll still count it for something. And, regardless of that classification, those two are still the only examples.

Incidentally, both goals – against PSG and at Chelsea – were scored by substitutes, something highlighted by Andrew Beasley in his weekly column.

Liverpool still outshot Chelsea on their own ground, something that didn't happen in last season's 0-1 loss on this ground. Similar happened at Tottenham, where Liverpool were out-shot and lost 1-4 last season, but took more shots than Tottenham and won 2-1 this season. Liverpool are now +4 points on last season’s results, having won their matches they were supposed to win against sides beaten last season but improving on their record against their peers.

And, as against Paris St-Germain, this feels a result that would have ended worse last season. Plus, two defeats to Chelsea in the space of four days could have been a massive blow, a shot to confidence levels after those first seven straight wins, especially with matches against Napoli and Manchester City imminent. The League Cup can be taken as *shrugs* but it’d have been harder to do so had Liverpool not gotten something from this, by hook, crook, luck, or talent.

And, as in multiple matches so far this season, we can clearly see not only what Liverpool are doing well, but where Liverpool can and almost certainly will improve.