09 February 2019

Liverpool 3-0 Bournemouth

Mané 24'
Wijnaldum 34'
Salah 48'

I'm not gonna lie. I got worried when Liverpool opened the scoring. For the third straight match, Liverpool poured forward from the opening whistle. For the third straight match, the opposition were pushed back, but the opposition also dropped back, happy to try to contain and control in their own half from the start. And, for a while it worked, until Sadio Mané opened the scoring. For the third straight match.

Just as against Leicester, just as at West Ham. And, yes, we remember what happened from there.

But this wasn't Groundhog Day again.

The morale of the story may be "well, it's Bournemouth." And, yes, they are a lot more open side than Leicester or West Ham.

Yes, but.

Bournemouth are usually a more attacking team, especially as "rest-of-the-league" sides go. Bournemouth do concede, regularly – only the bottom four sides have allowed more goals this season. Bournemouth had lost seven consecutive away games going into this, letting in two goals in all seven.

But Bournemouth were also trying to do what both Leicester and West Ham did: concede possession, concede territory, clog the middle of the pitch, especially in the defensive third. Bournemouth were much ore a 4-5-1 than their usual 4-4-1-1/4-4-2. Bournemouth made six interceptions in the first 23 minutes, and cleared the ball from inside their own box on nine occasions. The only space Liverpool consistently found was on the flanks, especially though Robertson and Milner. Which, to be fair, has worked in the past, but is not where Liverpool are at their most effective and can also leave Liverpool susceptible to counter-attacks.

Still, that's where Liverpool's opening goal came from, as well as from a set play, even if basically in name only. Bournemouth cleared the first ball in from Milner's corner, but Keïta reclaimed, Milner crossed, and an almost-but-not-quite offside Mané headed past Boruc. Simple as that.

Bournemouth failed to keep Liverpool at further bay, as Leicester did, or try to take the game to Liverpool, as West Ham did. Liverpool kept coming. That Liverpool midfield kept pressing, and in the 34th minute, Keïta's tackle pushed the ball to Mané, then over the backline by Robertson, delightfully controlled and then finished even more sumptuously by Wijnaldum, a jaw-dropping chip over Boruc.

That's what Liverpool had been missing. The comfort of a second goal, especially one scored in the 34th minute. A goal from Liverpool's midfield, a fourth runner into the box so the defense can't focus on that front three. Now we can play Liverpool's game.

Also, good finishing is really, really good. I'm almost not surprised Liverpool needed a goal that special to get a second after the previous two matches.

It's a formality when Liverpool get their third, one of those lighting four-pass moves that breaks opponents backs, one of those lightning moves that Liverpool finds more often when they've already scored one or two. Milner's throw-in, Mané's shift inside, Keïta's remarkable pass in behind to Firmino, and a back heel just as good for Salah to run onto, of course finished into the far corner.

This is the Liverpool we know and love.

But if this was truly Liverpool at its most imperious, we've have gotten more from there. A lot more. Salah's goal was Liverpool's first clear-cut chance. They'd go on to get three more – one headed wide by Mané, the other two shot too close to Boruc on fast breaks in the final five minutes. And Salah slammed a shot off the crossbar. And Keïta ballooned the best chance he's had to score his first Liverpool goal. And. And. And.

Meanwhile, there were few if any "ands" for Bournemouth.

This is the difference that a functioning midfield makes. Wijnaldum, back in the side after missing the last match, and Keïta, increasingly excellent with increasing game time. Fabinho, more and more accustomed to playing as the deepest in a three rather than a two-man partnership, the metronome at the base, the protection against counters through the middle. Keïta had a hand in all three goals: hockey assists on the first and third, pressing to start the move for Liverpool's second. He also led the side in touches, tackles, and ball recoveries. Wijnaldum scored that second and created three chances, one clear-cut.

It was the best that Liverpool had looked in the 4-3-3 in months, and while the midfield was a big part of that, the front three played theirs as well. Goals for both Mané – his fourth in four games – and Salah. Four chances created, one clear-cut and assist, for the terrific Firmino, also denied a deserved goal late on.

But Alisson also made two good, if routine, saves and a couple of necessary punches and clearances. Neither Milner nor Robertson were exposed despite spending the majority of the match in Bournemouth's half. Matip, like Keïta, looks increasingly comfortable, this his fourth consecutive start after not playing for more than a month prior. And van Dijk remains van Dijk; yes, yes, the defending, but I will also forever rue Firmino not passing to him in the 80th minute, the 6'4" center-back charging down the pitch alongside the three-on-two fast break. You always feed the big man when he joins the fast break.

So much for Liverpool's nerves. So much for Liverpool cracking under the pressure. So much for Liverpool's crisis.

Sure, it's only Bournemouth – a side that Liverpool had beaten 4-0, 3-0, and 4-0 in the three previous meetings. But similar could be said about West Ham last Wednesday. Similar can be said about a lot of sides in this division.

Liverpool beat the one in front of them this week, winning a match by multiple goals for the first time in 2019. And they'll need to play similarly against the next one. And the one after that. And the one...

05 February 2019

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Leicester (h), Crystal Palace (h), Brighton (a), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Newcastle (h), Wolves (a), Manchester Utd (h), Napoli (h), Bournemouth (a), Burnley, Everton (h), Paris St-Germain (a), 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. 

Liverpool go 1-0 up early through Sadio Mané, and are probably fortunate to do so. But then, under a modicum of pressure but still against the run of play, Liverpool unnecessarily concede possession. And unnecessarily concede a free kick. And unnecessarily concede an equalizer. And then Liverpool spend the rest of the half and the rest of the match futile and frustrated and unable to restore their lead.

It happened against Leicester on Wednesday. And now it happened at West Ham yesterday. Two matches in five matches, the same exasperating pattern of play with the same exasperating result.

Groundhog Day was last Saturday. But, still, don't forget your booties cause it's cold out there today.

So, yes, Liverpool have conceded five in the last three games, first letting in three against Palace before one each against both Leicester and West Ham. Liverpool had only conceded in back-to-back league games twice before this stretch this season. Now they've conceded in each the last three, at arguably a very bad time to do so, against sides currently placed 14th, 11th, and 12th.

And the two goals conceded in the last two games were both regrettably bad goals: both set plays, both creative in breaking Liverpool's usually excellent offside line. Those were just the second and third goals conceded this season from free kicks, with the other in the League Cup against Chelsea back in September. And it's not as if it was a fluke each game: Rice should've buried another free kick in the 42nd minute, Noble and Chicharito also had free kick chances in the 38th minute, and Leicester nearly got a second from a free kick last week when Alisson thankfully denied Firmino's own goal.

It's not encouraging. But I still focus on the fact that Liverpool won the match where they conceded three and have now drawn the two where they only scored once. Once again, Liverpool lives and dies by its attack. And we ain't been living much lately.

Ten shots against Leicester, none a clear-cut chance. 11 shots at West Ham, with only Mané's offside goal a clear-cut chance.

Via FiveThirtyEight:

That's a massive discrepancy in shot-based and non-shot xG. Which means lots of possession but no venom. 73% against West Ham, 72% against Leicester. 21 total shots. Two total goals, the first with some help from a Leicester deflection to set up Mané, the second with Milner very, very offside in the build-up.

Liverpool have had a tougher time getting shots – any shots – lately. Which hasn't really happened since the adjustment after switching to a primarily 4-2-3-1 system a few months ago.

Liverpool's shots in the last five games? Seven in the loss at City; ten in the narrow, decisive-penalty 1-0 at Brighton; 19 against Palace; and the aforementioned 10 and 11 in the last two. Oh, right, Palace remains the odd game out.

That said, at least Liverpool put the majority of their mediocre shots on-target. 55%, vastly better than the Leicester match, or previous narrow wins such as Brighton or Everton. That usually bodes well. Liverpool don't necessarily need a lot of shots to win, or win big, when the front three are doing their usual front three things. The side scored three and four from ten shots at Watford and Bournemouth respectively, five goals from 15 shots against Arsenal. But it sure helps, especially when clear-cut chances are at a premium as well.

You have to perfect, or lucky, or both, when you're not getting the opportunities you're accustomed to. At both ends of the pitch. And for the most part, Liverpool were when similar happened earlier this season. For the most part, Liverpool have been all season.

Again, there's a bit of "here we are with all these problems, top of the league." And it's not as if West Ham and Leicester are bad teams, both near the best of the rest even if the table still suggest otherwise, with West Ham having already held Chelsea and beaten both Arsenal and United on their ground this season.

But you can't help the feeling that it could be more, it should be more, and we'll be sat here ruing that it wasn't more in a couple of months.

There's still the specter of previous title challenges. Especially 2008-09, and 1-1 draws with Everton and Wigan right around this time of year, having led the league through December and early January but those two draws taking Liverpool out of top spot.

And what could have been a seven-point gap with Manchester City is now three. They'll have the chance to go top on goal difference, albeit with a game in hand, on Wednesday.

Now is the winter of our discontent. How long it lasts will decide how this season finishes. Let's hope a groundhog sees its shadow soon.