29 November 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Paris St-Germain

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (a), Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), Cardiff (h), Red Star Belgrade (h), Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), 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. 

A crucial Champions League match between two European luminaries. Even with more group stage matches to be played, the result will go a long way in deciding the group. And the home side starts a house afire, pinning back the opposition, breaking through their press, 2-0 up by the 37th minute. But the away side pulls an unlikely goal back just before halftime, setting it all up for the final 45 minutes.

At Anfield, PSG held on, still second-best but with Liverpool unable to extend its advantage. And then PSG equalized, seemingly unfairly. Yes, Liverpool restored their advantage deep in added time, earning a now-necessary three points, but this could easily have finished 2-2.

Yesterday, the home side again couldn't extend its advantage. But Liverpool never got going in the second half. Possession dominance without reward. A continued complete dearth of shots, let alone shots on-target. Substitutions that did little to change proceedings. And a disappointing 1-2 loss as the game ebbed away. Now, Liverpool have it all to do in two weeks against group-leading Napoli.

We can complain about the attack again. No shots on-target from Salah, Firmino, or Mané. No key passes from Salah, Firmino, or Mané. Liverpool's only shot on-target – from all of eight in total – was Milner's first half penalty. Liverpool's best other chance was Firmino's penalty box header seemingly sent back across goal rather than on frame. Salah was successful with just one of four dribbles. Mané was slightly better with two of five, including one for the penalty. Firmino's one attempted dribble, deep on the left flank, was unsuccessful.

So much for the vaunted return to 4-3-3.

We can complain about the midfield again. It's hard for the strikers to create, shoot, or score if they aren't being fed by the supply line. Sure, Milner played three of Liverpool's amazing total of four key passes: a corner flag cutback for Salah, cross for the aforementioned Firmino header, and short forward pass for Salah on the hour mark, but that's not obviously enough. Nor did that workmanlike trio provide the defensive protection needed to explain why that trio was picked ahead of, say, Keïta, Fabinho, or Shaqiri.

PSG's first goal is not great to look at.

This looks relatively safe.

Uh oh. Wijnaldum hasn't stuck to Neymar, so now Henderson feels the need to get involved, both pressing forward, leaving Verratti all by his lonesome if Firmino doesn't track back quick enough. Still, Verratti's only gonna be in the center circle.

Double uh oh. Still, maybe Milner cuts this out.

Nope. And now Verratti's still going, to be in place for the return from di Maria with literally five Liverpool players chasing in his wake and, well…

Three versus three, with Gomez not going to get back to Mbappe in time. Those three are Verratti, Mbappe, and Cavani. Those three are pretty decent at the football. Mbappe, in behind Gomez and wide of Lovren, gets the pass. Mbappe centers toward Cavani. Van Dijk cuts it out, but only sets up Bernat. A defensive error leading to a goal, but a goal that absolutely began in Liverpool's midfield.

A simple one-two completely destroys Liverpool's midfield if the limited press fails in the build-up.

So much for the vaunted return to 4-3-3.

This was the same midfield that started the 3-2 win over Paris St-Germain at Anfield. And, maybe as importantly, it's the exact XI which started against Manchester City last month. That Klopp would start the same XI as against City isn't beyond understanding. That side shut down the reigning, rampaging champions of England. But that side also didn't create a damned thing against City, and that was at Anfield. Paris St-Germain are similarly super-powered, but also even stronger on the counter-attack, when in full flow. As they were in the first half against Liverpool.

We can complain about the attack and midfield, but it's also not great when Neymar and Mbappe have almost free rein to double up on Lovren, as we see in the average position graphic. He didn't do too badly – that's a hell of an ask for any defender, and to be fair, it's hard to blame Liverpool's defenders – at least aside from van Dijk's unfortunate clearance leading to the first goal – for yesterday's result, but it's also no coincidence that Liverpool have yet to concede twice in a league match and have now done so in three of five Champions League matches.

No matter which phase of play we're primarily blaming, the fact remains that Liverpool have not been good away from home in the Champions League this season.

Yes, yes, sample size but yikes. Everything's bad in attack away from home. No matter whether Liverpool play the 4-3-3 as at Napoli and PSG or the 4-2-3-1 at Red Star. There's the discrepancy in both goals and shots, both for and against. The enormous disparity in shots on-target and shot accuracy. A disparity in all basic attacking statistics except xG per shot, surprisingly the same for both Liverpool and their opponents dependent on venue.

Thank the lord for penalties. Three at home so far, one scored against both PSG and Red Star, with another missed against Red Star, and yesterday's ultimately-only-a-consolation. It hasn't been good enough. And it might not be good enough to keep Liverpool in this competition.

But Liverpool aren't done yet. At least the Champions League this season now comes down to a match at Anfield. 1-0 will do, or any two-goal win, assuming PSG beat Red Star as expected. We're going to hear a lot about 2005, about Olympiakos, over the next two weeks.

Because this is Liverpool, and results like that are expected rather than hoped for. Unlike results such as this one.

26 November 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Watford

Previous Match Infographics: Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), Cardiff (h), Red Star Belgrade (h), Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), 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. 

"Professional performance" is an overused cliché. It's a nice way to say that the team didn't play especially well but still won. We've said it already more than a few times this season.

This was yet another professional performance.

Liverpool may have only taken 10 shots – with the first not coming until the 39th minute – but put seven of those ten on-target and scored with three. Six of those ten shots came from the Danger Zone in the center of the penalty box, three of those ten were clear-cut chances.

If you're not going to be prolific – or can't be prolific (*waves at Watford's eight-man defense and Liverpool's 4-2-3-1 formation*) – be ruthless.

Meanwhile, Watford took just five shots. Three of those five came in the final eight minutes, after Liverpool already had a two-goal lead and following Henderson's dismissal. Eight of Liverpool's 13 league matches have seen their opponents take eight or fewer shots. Five have seen six or fewer: 4-1 West Ham, 1-0 Brighton, 0-0 City, 4-1 Cardiff, and 3-0 Watford. This was the first away from Anfield.

We know Liverpool's defense is good. Sure, Watford had two clear-cut chances: Pereyra immediately after Liverpool's first shot, denied by Alisson, and Cathcart's late corner header off-target. But Watford, like nearly all who've come before, were mostly strangled. And Watford were shut out, just like seven other league sides so far this season.

As Andrew Beasley noted in today's Echo column, Liverpool have never conceded fewer than five goals through the first 13 league matches. It is literally the best defensive record in the club's top-flight history, at least so far. Liverpool have kept eight clean sheets, and conceded once in five games. It's now been 16 games since Liverpool last conceded twice in a league match, going back to the 2-2 draw at West Brom in April.

You ain't gonna lose many matches if you only concede once, if at all.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have now won five matches this season by a three-or-more goal margin. This was the first to take place away from Anfield. The last time Liverpool won by three or more away from home was the 5-0 Champions League win at Porto back in February; the last in the league was at Huddersfield at the end of January.

A disjointed attack, but the few Liverpool shots were almost all good shots (0.14 xG per shot is a very good xG per shot mark), the good shots were on-target, and Liverpool scored from a couple of them.

A resilient, mostly suffocating defense, again.

A result away from home, an improvement on previous away results against similar competition. Or the same competition. Remember last season's helter skelter, deeply annoying 3-3? That was a different Liverpool.

And it did not matter that Liverpool had not played in two weeks, with Liverpool again getting a good result after an international break.

To be fair, this hasn't been much of an issue since Klopp became manager. Nine wins, four draws, and just one loss in the last four seasons following internationals, with that one loss coming at Manchester City last season, highlighted by Sadio Mané's red card. But there has been at least one frustrating goalless draw in each of the previous three seasons. One of those ugly, ground-out wastes of 90 minutes.

We almost had one of those last month at Huddersfield, if not for Salah's early goal. It felt like we might have had that on Saturday, at least for the first 65 minutes. And then Liverpool had their moment, a flowing move down the left, the front three in flight, Firmino to Mane to Salah. Salah scored, for the ninth time this season, then Trent scored, and then Bobby finished it off.

We've almost had set-backs, multiple times so far this short season. But we haven't. By hook or crook or luck, Liverpool have usually done enough, especially in defense but also in attack.

And that's what makes this yet another professional performance, in a season already fairly full of them.

24 November 2018

Liverpool 3-0 Watford

Salah 67'
Alexander-Arnold 76'
Firmino 89'

The Liverpool "it ain't great but hey we won" train continues apace.

3-0 absolutely flatters Liverpool. More than two-thirds of that game was not fun. 69% possession in the first half, no shots until the 39th minute. Somewhere between a six- and eight-man back line from Watford more often than not and no space for Liverpool's attackers to even get on the ball, whether it's Salah again up front and marshaled by both center-backs, or Firmino dropping so deep he's taking the ball off of center-backs, or Henderson passing backwards, or etc etc etc. All the frequent complaints when Liverpool stutter and stumble so far this season.

There was a little bit of a flurry at the end of the first half, with Firmino's snap shot, Mané's acrobatics, and Salah's set play header all saved by Foster, but it certainly was nowhere near convincing. Not even during that six-minute spell.

Meanwhile, Watford had the ball in the net in the second minute, Deeney flicking on a goal kick to an narrowly offside Deulofeu, in behind van Dijk. Watford forced the toughest save of the first half, Pereyra's blast denied by Alisson in the 39th minute. Watford could have had a penalty when Robertson *may* have unnecessarily fouled Hughes in the 55th minute – even replays didn't confirm whether contact actually happened.

But then Liverpool did a good. Finally. Firmino, pushing into the final third, receives the centered pass from Robertson, looks up, and finds Mané in behind with a through ball, perfectly timed and weighted. Mané's center finds Salah, somehow, with three defenders lurking in proximity, his first-time shot at Ben Foster awkwardly, the keeper unable to get down or kick clear.

That's seven goals in the league, through 13 games, with two more in the Champions League. Seven goals, despite a change in position, playing closer to center-backs for the majority of the season. Seven goals, despite being more closesly marked, with the entire league well aware of what Mo's capable of doing. Seven goals, despite being "off-form." Well, off-form compared to last season's wonder show.

And once Liverpool scored, it wasn't long until Liverpool switched to 4-3-3, with Milner replacing Shaqiri. Get the goal, open the opposition, free the front three. And then Liverpool were off, first from a set play and then, finally, from a counter-attack.

Dead ball situations are crucial to breaking down packed defenses. And Trent Alexander-Arnold, even when not in the best of form, is very good at dead ball situations, rifling a free kick similar to that against Hoffenheim last season. Nine minutes after Salah opened the scoring. From frustration to comfort in the space of two shots in less than ten minutes.

Henderson's second yellow – which definitely seemed coming for a good five-to-ten minutes – gave us a touch of drama in the final ten minutes, but there was no real riposte from Watford before Liverpool added a third, Robertson tearing down the left on the break, eluding a desperate tackle, centering for Mané. Denied by Foster, but cheekily headed in by Firmino. So much for Firmino's lack of form or finishing as well, I guess.

And here we are again. As against Palace, Brighton, Huddersfield, Fulham, etc. Stolid but solid. And just potent enough. It's getting harder to say that better is coming. It's getting harder to blame new acquisitions for Liverpool's change in formation, especially since Fabinho didn't even start.

Maybe this is the new normal. But, still unbeaten in the league, just two points behind Manchester City and having dropped just four points through a third of the campaign, it's hard to complain about results. If not the process.

12 November 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Fulham

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (a), Cardiff (h), Red Star Belgrade (h), Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), 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. 

Why are Liverpool playing 4-2-3-1?

This is not a rhetorical question. I'm honestly asking. We almost never saw formation changes last season. 4-3-3 or bust, and a side built in that image, for that formation.

That hasn't been the case this season. We've seen 4-2-3-1 more often than 4-3-3 over the last month, but we've also seen a greater willingness to change the formation in general, as in the second half at Red Star when Liverpool switched to an eventual 4-2-2-2 when chasing the game.

Has it been because of the inconsistent attack? The misfiring midfield? Because of who's been available?

Yeah. A bit of all columns, I expect.

Because 4-2-3-1 isn't necessarily a "getting the best out of everyone" formation.

Yes, Liverpool have had midfield issues. Already. Oxlade-Chamberlain out for the season. Recent short-term injuries to both Henderson and Keïta. Fabinho has been needed, maybe sooner than Klopp had hoped. We've rightfully complained about the lack of creativity when Henderson, Milner, and Wijnaldum play together. Workmanlike rather than incisive. We've seen that Fabinho has been a stronger defender, better positioned, and a better passer from deep in the 4-2-3-1, with a double pivot midfield what he's most familiar with from Monaco. Changing Liverpool's formation has helped alleviate those midfield issues, if nothing else.

But, of course, it's not nothing else.

Liverpool's front three rightfully gets the headlines, both this season and last, but it's not just the front three. There were matches where they did all the attack: Roma, Porto, Watford, among multiple others. But there were matches where the midfield contribution was almost as important.

Even after Coutinho – with seven goals and six assists in the league – left in January, Liverpool continued getting help from midfield. Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain combined for six league goals but, more importantly, 11 assists. Can and Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal and assists in the 4-1 win over West Ham. Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal against City in the Champions League. Even Wijnaldum's cruical goal at Roma, a hapax legomenon away strike which just about sealed the tie.

It can't always just be Salah, Firmino, and Mané. Whether they're off-form, or defenders can focus on those three with no regard for other attackers, or it's just one of those days. You need more than three. You need options.

Enter Xherdan Shaqiri. With two goals and two assists in his last five matches. With an eye for a through ball, an ability to run at defenders rather than just past them, capable of shooting from distance or setting up a teammate. A different type of attacker than Firmino, Salah, and Mané; a necessary fourth attacker who can conjure something when the other three can't or aren't. A much greater attacking threat than Wijnaldum, Milner, or Henderson. Or Keïta, at least so far.

Obviously, there are still issues. Liverpool's wins have been thorough, but none has truly made jaws drop and caused expletives to be uttered, even the four-goal performances against Cardiff and Red Star.

Salah has stuttered up top at times, more closely marked by the opposition's center-backs. His goal yesterday is evidence of a greater potential threat when storming down the flank, whether better positioned to get behind the back line or more capable of isolating a solitary defender. There's more room to run out wide, and Salah often needs room to run. That and he's less likely to be on the ball when the spear-head, with just 17 attempted passes and only 39 touches against Fulham, compared to 69 for Shaqiri, 62 for Firmino, and 61 for Mané.

Similar goes for Firmino, who's yet to even approach his peak this season. Dropping into midfield from the #10, his average position yesterday almost inside the center circle, obviously takes him further from goal. Where he's less likely to drag defenders away from Salah and Mané, where he's less likely to play the short, cutting, just-outside-the-box assist. But there were signs on Sunday, with five chances created, the most he's had in a match since the 5-2 win over Roma back in April. He didn't register an assist, but they were mostly dangerous chances: three of the five into the penalty area, one clear-cut chance for Salah, another nearly clear-cut for Robertson on the counter midway through the second half.

But, you ask, why doesn't Liverpool play Firmino up top, Salah out wide, and Shaqiri as the #10? They've all played those positions before.

My guess? Part of the reason for the 4-2-3-1 has been personnel, and part has been to fix underlying issues. But Liverpool have also used this formation against sides more likely to sit deep and defend. Salah, even if he's not thriving in this striking role, is more likely to stretch the defense from that position rather than out right. Shaqiri, with his eye for through-balls and ability in possession, seems more likely to create for the other attackers from the right wing when there are multiple defenders in front of him. See: his recent assists against both Red Star and Huddersfield. And Firmino is more likely to remain the first defender in this formation, better able than Shaqiri to cover more ground chasing opponents, to press from multiple angles.

It's obviously not perfect. Fluidity still eludes as often as not. We still expect more from Liverpool's attack. And Liverpool can still be exposed on counter-attacks, as in the long ball to Mitrovic leading to Sessegnon's clear-cut chance in the 24th minute, as in the move through Liverpool's underbelly that lead to Mitrovic's chance saved just before halftime.

But, on the whole, it's better than what came before. The narrow, too-closely-contested 1-0 win at Huddersfield in the 4-3-3 formation with Shaqiri in midfield. The dumpster fire first half at Red Star. Even the first half at Arsenal, although that's not a side that's sat deep like most others of late.

It's another arrow in Liverpool's quiver. And, so far, it's getting results.

11 November 2018

Liverpool 2-0 Fulham

Salah 41'
Shaqiri 53'

A match in keeping with the rest of Liverpool's season so far.

Liverpool absolutely merited a win, but we're still nowhere near what Liverpool feels capable of. The attack's ragged more often than not. Clear-cut chances remain hard to come by. 4-2-3-1 still seems something of a band-aid, a way to fit both Fabinho and Shaqiri into a more comfortable formation despite sometimes feeling as if it's at the expense of Salah and Firmino, the former less influential up top, the latter dropping incredibly deep to link play.

And Liverpool remained lucky, as they've been for the majority of the season so far, both in their opening goal just before halftime as well as not already being behind before scoring it. For all of Liverpool's unsurprising possession, Fulham had the best chance of the opening half-hour, a goal kick from Sergio Rico, a flick-on by Mitrovic, Sessegnon somehow through Gomez's attempted tackle and one-on-one with Alisson only to push his shot wide. Play continued in a similar pattern, Liverpool possession and infrequent Fulham counters until a corner for the away side in the 40th minute, taken short, with a marginal – very, very marginal – offside decision ruling out Mitrovic's "goal."

Fulham are rightfully annoyed. It's just about offside, but you've seen them missed. And Liverpool are clever. Alisson immediately spreads play out to Alexander-Arnold. Look up, Salah's sprinting. Salah gets the pass, charging down the right flank – again, where he's far more likely to do damage. Salah's in behind, one-on-one with the keeper. And you know what happens in that situation.

And Fulham's game plan is boned. Teams have continued to bunker against Liverpool even after Liverpool takes a 1-0 lead this season – see: Palace, Brighton, Huddersfield, etc – hoping to capitalize on a counter or a set play or a mistake. The potential for 1-1 remains almost as good as 0-0 or 0-1 against Liverpool, especially at Anfield. A draw's all you've got the right to legitimately hope for anyway.

But now Liverpool start to turn the screws a bit more, especially after halftime. And it only takes eight minutes for 1-0 to turn into 2-0. Fulham, so close to opening the scoring on a set play. Liverpool, sealing the game on a set play. Alexander-Arnold's corner is cleared out to van Dijk, controlling on the left flank. Fulham start to come out. Liverpool see it and destroy it, Robertson's cross pin-point to an open Shaqiri on the back post, Fulham's defensive line shredded, a volleyed tap-in under no pressure.

2-0 is not 1-0. Liverpool *knocks on every piece of wood in arm's length* don't drop two-goal leads anymore.

From there, cruise control. Possession's easy. Fulham gets nothing, smothered and covered, limited to two shots from distance over the final 35 minutes, both from outside the box, Schürrle immediately blocked, Mitrovic nowhere close. Liverpool have a couple of chances, but Robertson and Firmino have shots saved and we get a bit more "close but no cigar" on a couple of counter-attacks. Same as it ever was: a little frustrating that Liverpool aren't out there slicing heads off, but more than good enough to get the needed result.

No matter the issues, Liverpool won, comprehensively if not dominantly. It was all but a formality when Liverpool scored a second, if not when Liverpool scored the first.

It was like Cardiff, but without both the opposition's consolation and Liverpool running up the score in the last five minutes. It was like Crystal Palace, the same result but that was away from home with this at Anfield. It was like Brighton, in a little too close for comfort for too long but never seemingly seriously in doubt.

It was Liverpool, still nowhere near what we think is Liverpool's best, but Liverpool absolutely good enough. Whether that will be enough in matches to come remains to be seen.

10 November 2018

Liverpool v Fulham 11.11.18

7am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (a) 02.12.14
4-0 Liverpool (h) 11.09.13
3-1 Liverpool (a) 05.12.13
4-0 Liverpool (h) 12.22.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Red Star (a); 1-1 Arsenal (a): 4-1 Cardiff (h)
Fulham: 0-1 Huddersfield (a); 0-2 City (a); 0-3 Bournemouth (h)

Goal scorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 6; Salah 5; Firmino, Milner, Sturridge 2; Matip, Shaqiri, Wijnaldum 1
Fulham: Mitrovic 5; Schürrle 4; Seri, Sessegnon 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

There are no easy matches.

Tuesday was supposed to be easy. The lowest ranked team in Liverpool's Champions League group. A team Liverpool beat 4-0 two weeks earlier. A 0-2 loss, conceding twice in seven minutes before spending the next hour throwing water balloons at a brick wall and expecting damage to result. Little creativity, no potency.

There are no easy matches. You come correct or you pay for it.

That said, Fulham are not good. Incredibly not good, sitting at the foot of the table, having one just once in the league back at the end of August. Having drawn just twice, the last coming six weeks ago. Surprisingly not good, considering they spent more than any club except Liverpool last summer.

So how are Liverpool going to punish Fulham? How are Liverpool going to respond to Tuesday's failure?

We'll have a few more players to pick from than on Tuesday. Keïta, Henderson, Lovren, and Gomez are all available after injury and illness concerns. Shaqiri's back in the squad, left out for Red Star due to political concerns. Liverpool can revamp the faltering, workmanlike-and-little-more midfield – the biggest problem area so far this season – which *should* help Liverpool create more and better chances, although Liverpool will still need to finish them.

So does that mean Keïta comes in, a more willing and able late runner into the box, a more dynamic offensive player, a more thorough and forceful presser? Or Henderson, usually better in matches against the lesser lights, his passing and possession able to pin sides deeper and deeper. Or Shaqiri, the most creative midfielder so far, even if he's played as a winger or #10 more often in his short Liverpool career?

Maybe Liverpool stick with the 4-2-3-1 which worked reasonably well when hosting Red Star and Cardiff. Shaqiri can play as the #10 or on the right, Salah out wide or up front, Firmino as the #10 or up front – although Firmino's lack of form has almost been as big an issue as the midfield. Fabinho's looked far, far better in this formation and, in theory, could play next to either Keïta – who played in this formation at Red Bull – or Henderson.

Or maybe we get the more familiar 4-3-3, with either Fabinho again adjusting to Liverpool's preferred formation alongside two others or Henderson as the deepest midfielder, bracketed by two from Keïta, Wijnaldum, Milner, and Shaqiri.

Liverpool, unlike in the last couple of matches, have more options thanks to the return of a couple midfielders. And, as a lesser concern, I also wouldn't be surprised to see Gomez continue at right back, both with Alexander-Arnold out of form and with Lovren – not Matip – available after missing midweek. I say "lesser concern" because, despite conceding twice at Red Star, the defense still ain't broken. Conceding a corner – just the second of the season after Tottenham's very late consolation – and an incredibly fortunate shot from distance ain't the end of the world. Nor does it suggest underlying issues.

Fulham have underlying issues. In every phase of play. Fulham should be a lot better than they've been.

That's a good squad. Mitrovic and Schürrle in attack, with five and four goals respectively. Seri and Anguissa in midfield. Ryan Sessegnon – still only 18 – as a winger or full back. £100m spent last summer.

Mitrovic and Schürrle – the only players with more than one goal – aside, they should score more goals than they have. They be more coherent in passing and possession. They've the tools and players to press the opposition more but haven't. They've conceded in every match this season except the first League Cup round against League Two Exeter, they've conceded at least two in all but two league matches. Their Expected Goals Difference is second-worst in the league, their Expected Points is third-worst.

It is confusing. And you'd think that if results don't change soon, Slavisa Jokanovic will be out of a job.

After trialling multiple XIs and formations, Jokanovic went with what's seemingly the best fit at Huddersfield on Monday. 4-3-3, with Sessegnon – who'd been playing more often as a winger – back at left-back; Cairney, Anguissa, and Seri as a three-man midfield for the first time this season; and Vietto, Mitrovic, and Schürrle all up front.

And they lost 0-1, again unable to get going in attack, unable to break down a Huddersfield side that admittedly gave Liverpool similar problems, unable to turn a possession advantage into chances, and also conceding an unfortunate fairly early own goal.

That said, I'm still guessing the same XI as in that match. Maybe I'm playing Football Manager here, but these still seem Fulham's best players in the formation most likely to succeed. Bettinetti; Fosu-Mensah, Odoi, Marchand, Sessegnon; Cairney, Anguissa, Seri; Vietto, Mitrovic, Schürrle.

We've got a Liverpool with key players returning, possibly rusty, probably not match-fit, but still likely to help the side. We've got a Liverpool needing to respond to a setback earlier this week. We've got a Liverpool that's yet to perform to potential but still unbeaten, still only two points off first, still with 27 points from a possible 33, the best return at this point in many a year.

And we've got opponents who are bottom of the league, massively underperforming, coming off a loss to potential relegation rivals. At Anfield.

There's one way this should go. Whether it's another narrow win where we lament some things that didn't go right or an absolute whomping. It should be a Liverpool win all the same.

05 November 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Cardiff (h), Red Star Belgrade (h), Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), 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. 

I don't like spending more time writing about Liverpool's opponent than I do Liverpool. But that's what this match was about. What Arsenal did to Liverpool rather than what Liverpool did to Arsenal. From the opening minute.

Five of Arsenal's eight key passes in the first half came from Liverpool's right flank, including both early clear-cut chances.

Here's how Arsenal came to those two clear-cut chances.

Fourth minute. Arsenal gain possession after a failed Liverpool long clearance. Long cross field to get Liverpool's defense retreating laterally. Two against one down Alexander-Arnold's flank – Kolasinac and Aubameyang. Overlap, through ball, low cross. Alisson saves at the feet of Aubameyang.

15th minute. Arsenal gain possession after a failed Liverpool long clearance. More patient, sustained possession, but also two more long cross field switches of play, again two against one on Liverpool's right – Kolasinac and Aubameyang – cross, Mkhitaryan header wide. Liverpool's defense especially out of shape because Liverpool's fullbacks had switched sides while defending a corner and didn't have time to recover.

And these were just two moments. There were more, called back for offside, final passes off the mark, shots both errant and blocked – four of nine in the first half off-target, three more blocked by Liverpool defenders (two by van Dijk, one by Gomez). And moments welcomingly cleared by Liverpool, with nine first-half clearances in the defensive third from van Dijk and Gomez.

Liverpool necessarily had to change tactics, first evident in Wijnaldum's average position – both deeper and wider to add the defensive help Salah couldn't – then in the halftime formation switch, something of a 4-4-1-1 with Milner on the right. That slowed Arsenal's progress, still dominant in possession but unable to turn it into opportunities, even after Milner opened the scoring just after the hour.

Arsenal's only shot between the 46th and 81st minutes came from Torreira, outside the box and straight down Alisson's throat, from a throw-in after Arsenal launched the ball down the field following the restart after Liverpool's goal.

And then Arsenal made changes of their own, first bringing on Iwobi and Ramsey, hoping to use Ramsey as a late runner into the box from the #10 and Iwobi's speed down Liverpool's right with Aubameyang fading. It helped, at least in increased pressure if not efforts at goal, but the breakthrough didn't come until the final substitution, Welbeck for Kolasinac, and Arsenal matching Liverpool's 4-4-2 formation with Iwobi at left-back. And, naturally, it was Iwobi turned provider. Down Liverpool's right.

It didn't help that Liverpool's two defensive lines had increasingly retreated, reacting to Arsenal's pressure, likely fatigue, and the increasingly little time left on the clock. Probably shouldn't have that much space to thread the pass.

Plus, two strikers up top, both Lacazette and now Welbeck, momentarily unbalanced Liverpool's almost-always impressive center-backs, this sequence Welbeck's first action in the game. Who's going with who? Oops, they're in.

Changes matter, substitutions matter. Especially in matches as tight as this. In matches between surprisingly equal top six rivals, with only Manchester City head, shoulders, knees, and toes above their peers.

So, yes, this match ended up being more about what Arsenal did to Liverpool than vice versa. Which is obviously concerning.

The attack remains unbalanced, with only Salah performing near potential, leading Liverpool in both shots and key passes. Firmino struggled to get involved despite his three shots, with one hitting the post, failing to create a chance, registering his lowest passing total both of the season and as far back as I can remember. Mané tallied just one late blocked shot from distance, although we're all still shouting about the wrongly disallowed goal.

The midfield still underwhelms, especially in possession, with Fabinho often basically terrible on the ball and intermittently decent off it. Wijnaldum's again less influential further forward and Milner remains Milner. God loves a trier and the trying's rewarded in his goal, but he's still a jack of most trades and master of few. Liverpool misses the creativity but more importantly misses the breaking of lines and pressing that both Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain add to the unit. Or Lallana if he's anywhere near the Lallana of a year ago. Or potentially Shaqiri, with more familiarity in Liverpool's system.

Both facets are concerning. It ain't the first time we've talked about either this season. I'm not especially hopeful that this'll be the last time. This match demonstrated that there are ways to be stifle and exploit Liverpool, and other sides with have taken notice, just as Arsenal had, with the desire to challenge Liverpool's right flank evident from the off. Liverpool coped, for the for most part, Liverpool reacted, and it's not hard to see Liverpool coming away with all three points if not with just one or two moments turning out differently.

But it's also demonstrated that Arsenal are a damned decent team with a clever manager of their own.

03 November 2018

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Milner 61'
Lacazette 82'

Two ways to look at this one.

A fair result between evenly matched teams, second place at fourth place. Both with clear-cut chances and spells of dominance. Arsenal were on top early and late in the first half, early and late in the second half, Liverpool had counter-punching spells between. Both sides scored well-taken goals that also were aided by how the keeper dealt with the ball into the box. Liverpool remain unbeaten in the league, Arsenal remain unbeaten in the league since the first two matches. It's the same result, if not the same score line or same type of match, as in this fixture last season. If anything, Arsenal were the "better" side for longer in the match, for what little that's too often worth. Arsenal dominated possession, Arsenal – even with that defense – kept Salah, Firmino, Mané surprisingly quiet.

On the other hand, Liverpool had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside in the 18th minute, long before either side actually scored, right as Liverpool started their first-half spell of control. Alexander-Arnold chips into the box, Mané's offside but doesn't go for the ball, Firmino's onside and chips it over the keeper. The flag stays down, the shot hits the woodwork. Mané's now onside, behind the ball as Firmino shoots, but the flag goes up as soon as he taps into the empty net. Only the lord and linesman know why. It's probably a different match had that counted, with Arsenal necessarily pushing harder and harder earlier on and Liverpool reasonably positioned to counter and add more.

And Liverpool twice hit the post, first by Firmino, then van Dijk from Milner's deep free kick, with Leno also bushwhacking the defender after the ball was gone, an almost certain penalty if it'd been done by an outfield player but somehow forgivable when it's the goalkeeper.

And Liverpool had adjusted to and coped with Arsenal after the home side's more-than-decent first half. Arsenal ran Alexander-Arnold ragged for long stretches in the opening 45 minutes, and were starting to carve Liverpool open through the middle as Wijnaldum pushed wider and wider to compensate that flank. Liverpool were back in the 4-3-3 and it was not working, with Fabinho unsure where to go or where to pass out, with Liverpool's right shredded time and time again. The second half started with Liverpool back in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Fabinho and Wijnaldum as a double pivot, Milner wide right, Firmino as the #10, Salah up top. Arsenal had nine shots in the first half. They had one between the 46th and 81st minutes.

And Liverpool took the lead just after the hour mark, with Milner on hand to mop up after Robertson found Mané careening down the left, Leno punching Mané's byline cross off his own defender, falling perfectly for the captain to charge on to and arrow into the half-guarded net.

It had been 14 matches since Liverpool last dropped points after taking a lead in the Premier League, 2-0 at West Brom turning into 2-2 in the final 11 minutes. They'd held on in tight matches against Palace, Brighton, Leicester, Tottenham, and Huddersfield, even if those sides aren't Arsenal or – in the case of Tottenham – weren't playing anywhere near as well as Arsenal played today.

But then Arsenal scored in the 82nd minute. Iwobi, on as a substitute 15 minutes earlier, is now at left-back as Emery throws caution to the wind, is in space midway through Liverpool's half as Liverpool's defensive line retreats deeper and deeper. Milner and Wijnaldum can't get out to close down in time, and he threads a through ball between two Liverpool lines for Lacazette's perfectly timed run. Alisson charges out – maybe rightly, maybe wrongly. He cuts off Lacazette's sight of goal, he doesn't bring the player down. But Lacazette retains possession, turns, and somehow finds the postage stamp window between Alisson's left hand and van Dijk's clearing header.

Maybe the keeper could've done more. Maybe Liverpool's line should've been higher, should have been more resilient. But we've also got to give credit to both the build-up and finish.

We've also got to give credit to the opposition. It ain't always Liverpool's fault when Liverpool drop points. Liverpool at least kept Arsenal out in the first half, with the attack only firing intermittently. Liverpool coped, adjusted, regrouped, and took the lead. Liverpool did good things against a side that's been hard to do good things against so far this season, at least after their first two matches.

Which is why, as hard as it is in the moment, I'm trying to focus more on the supposedly fair result than what could and maybe should have been.

02 November 2018

Liverpool at Arsenal 11.03.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-3 (a) 12.22.17
4-0 Liverpool (h) 08.27.17
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.04.17
4-3 Liverpool (a) 08.14.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Cardiff (h); 4-0 Red Star (h); 1-0 Huddersfield (a)
Arsenal: 2-1 Blackpool (h); 2-2 Palace (a); 1-0 Sporting Lisbon (a)

Goal scorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 6; Salah 5; Firmino, Sturridge 2; Matip, Milner, Shaqiri, Wijnaldum 1
Arsenal: Aubameyang 7; Lacazette 4; Özil 3; Xhaka 2; Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Monreal, Mustafi, Ramsey, Welbeck 1

Referee: Andre Marriner (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Gomez van Dijk Robertson
Wijnaldum Fabinho
Shaqiri Firmino Mané

If it ain't broke.

Two games in a row with 4-2-3-1, with Fabinho and Wijnaldum holding, with a line of Firmino, Mane, and Shaqiri behind Salah.

Two wins while scoring four goals in each, conceding just one unnecessary goal late against Cardiff.

True, Arsenal are not Red Star or Cardiff. I would not be surprised to see Henderson or Milner come in for Shaqiri, to see Liverpool's more familiar formation. I wouldn't be surprised to see both Henderson and Milner if Liverpool return 4-3-3, with Fabinho also making way. I hope to see Gomez come back in for Lovren, with Alexander-Arnold on the right.

But if it ain't broke.

If there weren't three unbeaten teams in the league, Arsenal would be getting even more publicity and praise. They started the season with two losses, their first without Arsene Wenger as manager since 1996. Two understandable losses – against Manchester City and at Chelsea. And then they went on an 11-match winning streak before a draw at Palace last weekend, then winning with the B-team in the League Cup against Blackpool on Wednesday.

Seven wins, one draw, and two losses. 22 points, just two behind Chelsea and four behind Liverpool and City.

They're quite good in attack. Arsenal have scored four more goals than Liverpool so far this campaign. They put three past West Ham, Cardiff, and Leicester, and five past Fulham. They've scored at least twice in every league match except the opening day fixture at Manchester City.

Granted, they're seemingly over-performing – an Expected Goals total just over 14, but with 24 goals actually scored – but that's not entirely a bad thing. Liverpool over-performed by a similar margin last season and it was a lot of fun to watch unless you were playing Liverpool.

They're not quite as good defensively, having conceded nine more goals than Liverpool. They've kept just two clean sheets in the league, at home against Everton and Watford more than a month ago. Their 13 goals conceded, in contrast to the attack, is almost exactly in line with xG totals.

It's slightly understandable, both given Unai Emery's style – playing out from the back, reasonably heavy pressing, an emphasis on attacking patterns – and Arsenal's defensive injuries and the actual defenders involved. But it still ain't great. It's definitely something Liverpool can take advantage of.

And Arsenal might be without both starting fullbacks tomorrow; Bellerin went off with an injury at halftime at Palace while Monreal has missed the last four matches. Both could be in contention, but will be assessed tomorrow, as will Sokratis and Kolasinac. Elneny, Koscielny, and Mavropanos are injured and Guendouzi is suspended.

Arsenal do have options, and have had to use them over the last month. If only Bellerin's fit, Kolasinac or Lichtsteiner will play at left-back. They'd have played there more if not for Bellerin's and Kolasinac's respective injuries, meaning that Xhaka has been the stand-in left-back for the last few matches. If Bellerin's unable to feature, Lichtsteiner will stay at right-back with either Kolasinac or Xhaka on the other flank.

Otherwise, the Arsenal XI has been fairly consistent during their unbeaten stretch. Cech; Lichtsteiner, Mustafi, Holding, Xhaka; Torreira, Ramsey; Iwobi, Özil, Aubameyang; Lacazette.

Emery may be slightly more cautious than the recent attacking formations used, dropping one of Lacazatte or Aubameyang to the bench for Welbeck or Mkhitaryan. Cech's fit again – with Leno having started the previous three league matches – but Cech also pulled a Cech in the League Cup a few days ago, allowing Blackpool back in the game so *shrugs*.

These matches have been fairly bananas since Klopp took over. 3-3 at Arsenal in January 2016. 4-3 at Arsenal on Opening Day in 2016-17. Romps at Anfield in both 2016-17 and 2017-18, 3-1 and 4-0 respectively. And another 3-3 at Arsenal last December, Liverpool up 2-0 before conceding three in five minutes, then at least clawing a point back. Three goals scored by at least one side in all five fixtures, and by both sides in three of them.

Both sides have the potential to do so tomorrow. There are goals in those XIs, as we've seen from Arsenal over the last couple of months, as we've seen from Liverpool only sporadically this season, albeit more in the last two matches.

Liverpool, however, looks the more likely to keep the opposition from doing so.