22 August 2017

Liverpool v Hoffenheim 08.23.17

Liverpool lead 2-1 on aggregate

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Palace (h); 2-1 Hoffenheim (a); 3-3 Watford (a)
Hoffenheim: 1-0 Bremen (h); 1-2 Liverpool (h); 1-0 Rot-Weiß Erfurt (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Mané 2; Alexander-Arnold, Firmino, Salah 1
Hoffenheim: Amiri, Kramaric, Uth 1

Referee: Daniele Orsato (ITA)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Matip Lovren Robertson
Can Henderson Milner
Salah Firmino Mané

I'd expect to see at least three of those rested against Crystal Palace to come back into the XI: Emre Can, Salah, and Alexander-Arnold. Possibly Lovren as well, although Klavan did play well, and seemingly made Matip look better as well, even if it was just one match. Given his showing on Saturday, Robertson has to be likely to keep his place.

And I'm tempted to think that James Milner will as well, as much for what Wijnaldum hasn't done as for what Milner did.

That key players were able to miss Saturday's match, while Liverpool still won all three points, is of massive benefit. But fatigue remains an issue. Matip, Henderson, Firmino, and Mané are the only four outfield players to start all three matches so far. Matip's played every minute; Mané's missed just one, substituted late a week ago; Firmino has been substituted late in each match so far; and Henderson missed the last half-hour in Germany. That's a lot of minutes played in 11 days. And I can't see any of those players left out tomorrow. Maybe I just don't want to envision any of them left out.

Oh, and Arsenal's on Sunday. As much as we'd like that not to play a role, that will play a role.

Hoffenheim rested players during their weekend league match as well. Similarly three-at-the-back, but 3-5-2 rather than 3-4-2-1, and five changes as well – at wing-back, central midfield, and up front.

Your guess as to their formation and personnel is almost certainly as good as mine, if not better. My best guess is similar to what we saw in Germany, with maybe one or two differences. So let's go with Baumann; Nordtveit, Vogt, Hübner; Kaderabek, Amiri, Demirbay, Zuber; Gnabry, Kramaric; Wagner. Hoffenheim have no new injuries or absentees since last week.

Regardless of XI, Hoffenheim will attack. Hoffenheim have to attack. At Anfield, they'll probably have less of the ball than in Germany. But they need at least two goals, whether or not Liverpool get one. Two goals with no reply will see them through. Two goals while Liverpool score one gets us extra time.

Hoffenheim have yet to score more than once in their three matches so far this season.

Chances are we're getting "soak up and counter" Liverpool. Defend deeper than usual, hoping to prevent the gaps and mistakes which lead to long-ball and counter-attack concessions. Try not to give away any set plays. And then burn them with pace, with Salah, with Mané. As tempting as it is to go at Hoffenheim from the opening whistle, that Liverpool getting one goal wouldn't dramatically change proceedings will play into Klopp's tactics.

There is no way to overstate the importance of tomorrow's match. It is the difference between the Champions League and the Europa League. The difference between a celebration and a return to the big kids' table, or an unwanted Thursday night slog through remote locations.

And it is too early in the season to suffer such a setback.

21 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace

Previous Match Infographics: Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored and Liverpool FC

For all the talk of a new Crystal Palace, of Frank de Boer wanting his side to play football, that was about as deep a defense as Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool have seen. Very much a five-man backline, with both Ward and van Aanholt rarely out of their own half. Only five sides have had less possession in a league match against Klopp's Liverpool than Palace did – 0-2 Burnley (a), 5-1 Hull (h), 2-0 Sunderland (h), 2-3 Swansea (h), 3-0 Boro (h); all in 2016-17. Only two sides have made more interceptions against Klopp's Liverpool in a league match – Aston Villa, in Liverpool's 6-0 home romp, and Leicester, when Liverpool lost 0-2, both in February 2016, both wanting little more than to keep Liverpool out, one successful, one very much not so – and all but one of Palace's interceptions in their own half. Only four sides have taken fewer than four shots against Klopp's Liverpool: 4-0 Everton (h) in 2015-16, and 0-2 Burnley (a), 5-1 Hull (h), and 0-0 Southampton (a) in 2016-17.

So, yes, yet again, Liverpool had to deal with a deep defense. And Liverpool struggled against a deep defense. Liverpool had to grind out a win against that deep defense without ever looking fluent. Liverpool are thankful that Tomkins and Benteke missed excellent chances, from a set play and from a long ball, in the 9th and 55th minutes.

But it was a much-changed Liverpool XI, with five alterations from the line-up in the first two fixtures. But Liverpool took 23 shots, nine more than they had in each of the first two fixtures. But Liverpool put 13 of them on-target. But Liverpool created multiple decent opportunities – few, but two clear-cut in the first half, both via crosses from the excellent Andrew Robertson, then increasingly more and more in the second half, especially after the substitutions and Mané's game-winner.

Incidentally, Sadio Mané has now scored the opening goal in his last three Premier League appearances. 3-1 Everton, 3-3 Watford, and 1-0 Palace.

Nonetheless, 10 of those 23 Liverpool shots came from outside the box. 15 came in the final 35 minutes, with seven after Liverpool finally scored (including six of the 13 on-target). As Andrew Beasley noted, Liverpool scored at least three goals in the three previous matches since 2008-09 where they put 13 shots on-target. Liverpool's xG per shot at Watford was around 0.13 when not including the penalty. It was 0.11 at Hoffenheim. It was 0.09 against Palace.

Liverpool had shots and Liverpool had some good chances – which is good! – but still needed a Palace error, a fortunate break of the ball, and Mané's individual brilliance to win the match. Liverpool kept its first clean sheet of the campaign and Liverpool held the opponents to a dismal shot total, with three new starters in the back line – which is good – but needed those two aforementioned bad misses to win the match.

It remains very, very early, but I'm inclined to continue to complain most about Liverpool's midfield.

10 of Liverpool's outfield players created at least one chance. It was fairly evenly split – most players just one, except Robertson with three (all in the first half), and both Firmino and Gomez with two. The three who didn't create anything? Wijnaldum, Milner, and Lovren – the latter only playing the four minutes of second half injury time.

That is a dire lack of creativity from Liverpool's two advanced central midfielders. Milner's inability, despite completing 100 passes, is one thing, and obviously concerning. But Wijnaldum's inability, despite playing a bit further forward, combined with only 28 attempted passes in 71 minutes despite Liverpool's 73% possession, is even more concerning.

Might as well break out the passing wheel again.

Four completed forward passes: two from his own half, and two short to Robertson on the flank. Six completed passes in the final third, all short and all sideways.

But even more infuriating than the passes played was his utter lack of involvement. Sturridge and Mignolet were the only Liverpool players to make fewer touches, and had Sturridge played 10 more minutes, as Wijnaldum did, he'd probably have surpassed the midfielder.

In three matches, a little more than 250 minutes played, Wijnaldum's had 127 touches. Andrew Robertson had 134 on Saturday. Wijnaldum's made one key pass in these three matches – spread wide for Salah's off-target shot early in the second half at Watford. He's taken four shots – two in each league match. At Watford, both came late, off-target and blocked. Against Palace – he probably could and should have scored, whether with the well-hit shot on-target from distance or when lingering on the ball before getting an effort blocked with his last touch of the match.

This midfield – without Coutinho for the rest of the month at best, without Lallana for the next three or four months, with Woodburn yet to be integrated as one of the creative hubs – cannot abide by passengers. Wijnaldum hasn't been the only disappointment in this area, but Wijnaldum has been little more than a passenger through all three fixtures so far. Irrelevancy is more infuriating than inferiority.

But as said in the match review, right now, just enough is good enough. Improvement's been necessary in all three phases – midfield, attack, and defense – through all three fixtures so far, but we at least got some improvement in the latter two on Saturday. Mané continues to Mané, Salah and Solanke made massive differences off the bench, Robertson impressed on his debut, Gomez did well in his first league start in almost two years, and Klavan and Matip looked more secure than Lovren and Matip in the first two games, against a player who often causes Liverpool fits.

And Liverpool won, against opposition they hadn't beaten at home in each of the previous three seasons. More, much more, will be needed, but that'll do for now.

19 August 2017

Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace

Mané 73'

Just enough is good enough.

Of course, it was too close for comfort. Of course, we really would like and need Liverpool to be better and more coherent, especially in midfield.

But Liverpool made five changes, needing to rotate the side with injuries and fixtures already accruing at too fast a rate. I mean, just look at that starting XI. Robertson's debut, Joe Gomez's first league start since October 2015, Klavan partnering Matip, Milner's second league start in midfield since the beginning of last season.

But, after suffering for the first hour, Liverpool finally made necessary substitutions, with Salah for Sturridge and Solanke for Wijnaldum – and a switch to something like a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 – improving the side immensely.

But Liverpool more than quintupled Palace's shot total. Liverpool had three times as many shots on-target as Palace had shots. Crystal Palace's last shot came in the 55th minute. Liverpool took 15 shots – even if that total only included one goal – after that.

But Liverpool finally scored.

But Liverpool never conceded.

But Liverpool ground out a necessary win against the type of opposition who's given them so many problems over the last season and a bit more. Against a club that's given them so many problems in recent season.

But the home side hadn't won this fixture since Palace beat Liverpool on their own ground in November 2014. Liverpool hadn't beaten Palace at Anfield since October 2013; you know, the season they almost won the league. Liverpool hadn't kept a Premier League clean sheet against Crystal Palace since December 1997, 12 matches before this one.

But three points. And that's really all that matters.

So, yes, Liverpool weren't good in that first half. Liverpool's midfield – for the third straight match – was actually bad; or, at the very nicest, uncreative. Andrew Robertson was the only player creating anything of note. Once again, the match featured Liverpool running headlong into all those deep defenders and failing to break through them.

The 55th minute was the turning point. The second half had started the same as the first. Lots of possession, a couple of speculative shots from distance, and Liverpool seemingly no closer to finding the breakthrough. And then, what had been the sucker punch in far too many fixtures. One long ball forward. Loftus-Cheek beating Klavan far too easily, to the byline, and a cut-back to a wide-open Benteke eight yards out, with Matip in no-man's land and Gomez struggling to catch up.

And the player who'd scored seven goals in his eight matches against Liverpool skied his sitter.

Not long after, Salah replaced Sturridge, and Liverpool incrementally kicked up the gears in attack. Not long after that, Solanke replaced Wijnaldum, and Liverpool kicked them up a bit more. It was a revolutionary idea: the midfield and individual midfielders aren't playing well, so play fewer of them.

And not long after that – two minutes, in fact – Liverpool finally made the breakthrough. Once again, it's Sadio Mané. Once again, it's both a bit of fortune, a bit of talent, and a bit of individual brilliance. Another attempt to quickly link through the final third. Solanke causing trouble with his strength, Mané determined enough and clever enough to continue his run, Liverpool lucky that Milivojevic's touch was poor, and Mané quick enough and talented enough to finally beat Hennessey.

While we're all traumatized and expect the worst and probably rightfully so, Palace had no response. Their solution was to throw Scott Dann forward with Benteke and hoof more long balls. And Liverpool dealt with it just fine. No Palace shots, no Palace threats. Meanwhile, Hennessey needed to deny Salah (twice), Firmino, Solanke, and Robertson in the final ten minutes to keep the scoreline at 1-0.

So, yes, that'll absolutely do, pig. There are still real, discernible problems, problems with we've all screamed about already this season. There's still so much more improvement needed, and there are still transfers which need to be done.

But this early in the season, with this lineup, against this opposition, a win, any win is sufficient.

18 August 2017

Liverpool v Crystal Palace 08.19.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Palace (h) 04.23.17
4-2 Liverpool (a) 10.29.16
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.06.16
2-1 Palace (h) 11.08.15

Last matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Hoffenheim (a); 3-3 Watford (a)
Palace: 0-3 Huddersfield (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino, Mané, Salah 1
Palace: n/a

Referee: Kevin Friend (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Matip Lovren Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Mané

It's hard to see where any changes to the starting XI might come. Sturridge is fit again, but I highly doubt Liverpool want to mess with that front three, the only phase that's been without complaints so far this short season.

There's not much to be done in defense, at least personnel-wise. Clyne's still injured and Alexander-Arnold's done fine. More than fine for 89:30 of 90 minutes against Hoffenheim. Lovren and Matip have each had their issues, but are still probably a better idea than bringing in Klavan or Gomez. Left-back is where Liverpool could make a change, but Moreno hasn't been the problem area in the defensive unit, holding up well despite being target by both Watford and Hoffenheim.

I am, however, tempted to suggest changes in midfield, with Milner replacing Henderson – as happened for the last half-hour against Hoffenheim. It didn't show in preseason, but the first two games suggest something's not right with Liverpool's captain. But even still, without Coutinho and Lallana, with Woodburn not even named in the squad after understudying in the position throughout preseason, Liverpool have a desperate lack of creativity in the center of the pitch. There's a chance Milner helps with that, at least compared to Henderson, with Can moving deeper. At least with this match being at Anfield, Gini Wijnaldum may actually play.

Unless, of course, Liverpool changes are forced. Both Mané and Can appeared to miss training on Thursday, at least according to the training pictures released by the club. But I'm not necessarily sure we can divine absences from official club pictures. It's not as if the club will also announce injuries, but this still feels as if we're reading tea leaves here. Still, if they're both missing, we're getting Sturridge, Solanke or Origi up front with Firmino on the left, and Milner, Henderson, and Wijnaldum in midfield. Which is *shrugs*.

And regardless of who's available for the hosts, Liverpool will be facing a side with a point to prove, a side that will probably play the type of style which has hurt Liverpool in the past, and a side that's bedeviled them over the last few seasons.

Palace were absolutely rinsed by Huddersfield last week, a 0-3 loss at home not flattering the promoted side in the slightest. Huddersfield's crosses – both open and set play, both high and low – punished Palace, while Palace were wasteful – Zaha denied on a glorious chance from a long ball and flick-on, Benteke errant on a couple of trademark chances. Well, Liverpool won't attack Palace as Huddersfield attacked Palace, and Benteke is rarely errant when facing Liverpool.

I suspect Palace will stick with the same 3-4-2-1 formation we saw against Huddersfield as well, despite the result. Something like Hennessey; Fosu-Mensah, Dann, Riedewald; Ward, Puncheon, Milivojevic, van Aanholt; Loftus-Cheek, Townsend; Benteke.

Wilfred Zaha will be a massive miss for Palace, while Bakary Sako's also out. Cabaye, McArthur, Wickham, and Souare are doubtful. If available, there seems a small chance that Cabaye starts rather than Townsend.

I had almost forgotten that these sides met in Hong Kong a month ago. Liverpool's 2-0 win, with second-half goals from Solanke and Origi, was good for preparation but not for precedent.

When the fixtures have actually counted, Palace have won each of their last three matches at Anfield: 1-2, 1-2, and 1-3. The away side, whether Palace or Liverpool, have won the last six meetings. And, probably more notably given what we've complained about over the last couple of weeks, Liverpool haven't kept a clean sheet against Palace in the last 13 fixtures, since a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup way back in 2003.

When the fixtures have actually counted, Christian Benteke's run riot against Liverpool, with seven goals in eight appearances, including both of those scored in last April's loss. Five of those seven goals have come at Anfield. And, of course, I'll remind that his winner last April came from a Crystal Palace corner.

Liverpool know what Liverpool have to do. Better than they did at Watford, in attack, midfield, and defense. They'll need to do it when missing key players, they'll need to do it with a more important fixture lurking next Wednesday. And, as against Watford, they'll need to do it against a side and in a situation where they've disappointed far too often.

16 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Hoffenheim

Previous Match Infographics: Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored.

(Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

It's second-half injury time. Liverpool are clinging onto a one-goal lead. A Liverpool substitute who'd come on just moments before gives away a cheap free kick. And an opposition set play leads to an opposition clear-cut chance.

Four days ago, Britos converted his, which came from a corner following Gomez's foul. Yesterday, Benjamin Hübner sent his header from Demirbay's free kick just over the crossbar.

After Saturday's match, I wrote that "what goes around comes around." Here's yet more proof.

And to be completely honest, it's hard to argue that Liverpool fully merited its win, especially had it remained a two-goal margin.

Liverpool's goals came from the most unlikely of sources: Trent Alexander-Arnold's wonderful free kick and Milner's fortunately deflected cross leading to an own goal. The last time Liverpool scored at least two goals with none coming from Liverpool's front five was nearly a year ago, 2-1 over Chelsea with goals from Lovren and Henderson.

It took both heroics from Simon Mignolet and poor finishing from the hosts to keep Hoffenheim out for 86 minutes. Hoffenheim failed to score any of their three clear-cut chances. Had Kramaric converted his 12th minute penalty – which was admittedly incredibly soft – this is certainly a very different match. Mignolet did well to deny Gnabry in the 43rd, followed up by Wagner's rebound off the post rather than in an open goal-mouth. And then there was the aforementioned Hübner off-target header in the 91st minute.

To be slightly fairer, Liverpool also failed to take two clear-cut chances of their own – Salah's right-footed shot wide on the counter in the 15th and Firmino's close range effort saved in the 47th.

Liverpool's Henderson-Can-Wijnaldum midfield again suffered and again disappointed. All three struggled to get onto the ball in the face of constant Hoffenheim possession, and as at Watford, chances came when defenders found attackers, bypassing the central zone. Neither Henderson nor Wijnaldum created a chance or took a shot, and Liverpool looked vastly better when Milner replaced the captain, shifting Can to a deeper role.

Not that a lack of possession seems to hurt Liverpool. This was the 14th match under Klopp where Liverpool's had less than 50% possession. Liverpool's record in those matches is 8W-5D-1L – 2.07 points per game – with the lone loss coming due to an injury-time goal conceded in the 0-1 loss at Villarreal. But 36.6% possession is by far a new low, the first time Klopp's Liverpool have been held under 40%.

Once again, it's any port in a storm, especially in European competition. Liverpool's had done to them what they did to Hoffenheim far more often than the reverse has happened.

And despite that lack of possession, Liverpool still out-shot Hoffenheim, and could have scored more with better finishing of their own, especially from that vaunted front three. I'll almost always take 50% shooting accuracy – especially when compared to Hoffenheim's 30.8% – but Salah, Firmino, and Mané all left chances out there.

Aside from Lovren In The Time of Cholera (© Not Too Xabi) – responsible for the penalty, completely out of position and up the pitch for Gnabry's chance, and playing Uth onside for the goal – Liverpool defended reasonably well. As usual, there's at least one mistake you can point at for each of the four, but I was still pleased, especially with Liverpool's full-backs.

Special mention goes to Alexander-Arnold, who unfortunately stopped playing when assuming offside for Hoffenheim's goal, but was otherwise faultless, and gave Liverpool that indescribably important lead from a free kick which stunned us all. It's been too long since a Scouser scored for Liverpool – since Steven Gerrard in Steven Gerrard's last game, in May of 2015. This one's only 18.

And with that free-kick, Alexander-Arnold joins a short list of players who've scored from that situation over the last five years.

And while they all count in the end, it bears mentioning that both of Henderson's free kicks, as well as Milner's, came from left-wing crosses missed by both attackers and goalkeeper. In matches which ended 6-0, 6-0, and 4-0.

Long may this continue, Trent.

When all's said and done, Hoffenheim hadn't lost at home since the final day of 2015-16, unbeaten at the Rhein-Neckar through all of 2016-17, with 11 wins and six draws. By hook and crook and talent and luck, Liverpool broke that streak.

Liverpool now take an edge – albeit more slender than we'd like, because of failings we've seen in the past – into next week's match. Liverpool still have work to do, but they're in a position we'd have all happily taken prior to kickoff.

14 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-3 Watford

Match data from WhoScored and Squawka.

Notate Bene: Without Stats Zone, the passing network I included last season is all but impossible for the way I do these infographics. Sorry. I'll miss them too; hopefully Stats Zone will be back in the future. Also, I have no idea how I'm going to handle Europe this season, because of work, life, etc crunch. Probably infographics the day after, but maybe no writing. We'll see. And while we're on the subject of Europe, no Hoffenheim preview later today because, again, work. I will try not to be a terrible blogger this season but we're not starting out well.

I feel as if I've written this before.

Liverpool conceded early, as they did against Burnley (a), Swansea (a), Stoke (h), Burnley (h), and Bournemouth (a) last season. Three of those four sides finished in the bottom half of the table.

Liverpool conceded from a corner, as they did against Hull (h), Swansea (a), West Brom (h), Swansea (h), Hull (a), Everton (h), and Crystal Palace (h) last season. Three of those five sides finished in the bottom half of the table, West Brom finished 10th, and the other was Everton.

Liverpool conceded late and Liverpool threw away points, as they did against Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (a), United (a), and Bournemouth (h). Bournemouth and United at least finished in the top half of the table.

So, yet again, Liverpool dropped points against a side likely to finish in the bottom half of the table, as they did against West Ham (h), Leicester (a), Palace (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Hull (a), and Sunderland (a). Seven of the ten teams who finished in the bottom half of the table last season.

But there are a couple of differences worth mentioning.

Liverpool failed to take at least 14 shots in nine of the 12 matches against the rest of the top seven, but only three times against the other 13 sides in the division: the 3-4 loss at Bournemouth, the 2-1 win against Burnley, and the 1-0 win at Watford. One match Liverpool should have never lost, one match Liverpool were fairly fortunate to win, and one that Liverpool required an absolutely indescribable moment of brilliance from Emre Can to win. But it might not be coincidence that Watford's on this list, and Saturday also happened.

Liverpool conceded three goals in one game just four times last season: a 4-3 opening day win at Arsenal, 3-4 at Bournemouth, 2-3 v Swansea, and 1-3 at Leicester. The Bournemouth match was the only one where Liverpool had a lead but still lost. That Liverpool have already done so in the first match this season might bode poorly.

The last time Liverpool conceded from two corners in the same match was 2-2 against West Brom in 2015-16. 20 months ago. In Jürgen Klopp's 14th match. That's the only other time it's happened since Klopp became manager, but it also never happened during Brendan Rodgers' little-more-than three seasons.

To be fair, we're not really complaining about Liverpool's attack, at least once it finally got going. They absolutely merited those three goals. 13 of 14 shots from inside the box. 12 of 14 shots from key passes rather than unassisted. An Expected Goals total of somewhere between 2.2 and 2.4, depending on who's calculating, when including Firmino's penalty, which is a xG per shot total vastly better than Liverpool's average last season. A goal for each of Liverpool's first-choice front three: Salah on his debut, Firmino now that he's first-choice on penalties, and the second year in a row that Mané's scored on opening day.

I will, however, complain about one more thing.

Liverpool's midfield was nowhere near good enough on Saturday.

At the most basic, Liverpool's defense and Liverpool's attack took more shots and created more chances. Liverpool's three midfielders all attempted and completed fewer passes and had fewer touches than their averages last season, especially for a match where Liverpool dominated possession for the first 60 minutes. And then they offered little protection or help in the 30 minutes where Watford pressed for and finally got their equalizer. Can gave away the throw-in leading to Watford's second, Henderson completely failed to track Cleverley's run into the box on Watford's second. And I don't really remember anything Wijnaldum did except miss a fairly decent chance in the 86th minute. Oh, and completely messing up an attempted clearing header on the corner for Watford's late equalizer.

Liverpool's early problems going forward from midfield started at the base.

It was not a good day for Liverpool's captain.

• A surprising amount of long passes, although given Mané and Salah's pace, that was probably partly by design.
• A horrific pass accuracy when playing forward and directly.
• 45/65 passes completed – 69% passing accuracy – in open play.
• Only 17 passes – 13 completed – in the opposition half.
• Only one chance created – spread wide to Moreno for his shot tipped over by Gomes in the 64th minute, which was Liverpool's only shot from outside the box.
• And, while it's not passing related, no shots, two of four tackles successful (with none in the middle of the pitch), and only one interception.

I may be mistaken, but I can't remember Henderson with such a low pass accuracy when playing in this role. He's a player who averaged 86% pass accuracy last season, as well as 3.7 successful tackles and 1.7 interceptions per 90 minutes.

He was not Liverpool's only under-performer yesterday – Can only created one chance as well, although it was the assist for Liverpool's opener, as did Wijnaldum, in addition to two poor shots – but he was also nowhere near that player we've become accustomed to. I'm hoping it's mainly because he hasn't played a competitive fixture since early February, but I'm also increasingly worried that this midfield three isn't going to work in matches like these.

And Watford, like so many other sides, knew how they wanted to attack Liverpool. And took just enough advantage.

No one could have guessed they'd want to target Liverpool's left flank. Otherwise known as where Lovren and Moreno play.

To be fair, Lovren and Moreno weren't wholly terrible, and dealt fairly capably with Watford's repeated attacks down that flank. The second goal was obviously an issue, but there were others far more at fault than those two. Still, Watford won't be the last to try to exploit that area.

So, yes, there's a lot to be annoyed about, and a bit to be worried about. A bit to be pleased with as well, but probably more concerns than positives.

And while 3-3 is rarely ever a welcomed result, especially when it happens because you've conceded in the dying seconds, especially when we're complaining about the things we've complained about for months now, sometimes what goes around eventually comes back around. Even if it feels as if it comes back around far too often for Liverpool.

In this fixture last season, Prödl crashed a clear-cut chance off the crossbar in the 94th minute with Liverpool hanging onto a one-goal lead. This time, Britos converted his, albeit from an offside position, albeit arguably interfering with Mignolet.

I'd still prefer it came back around less often.

Those three points at Watford last season rather than one, with three games left, played a crucial part in Liverpool getting fourth place. If forced to choose, I'll take that and then this result.

Because Liverpool still has 37 games in this season to make this right.

12 August 2017

Liverpool 3-3 Watford

Okaka 8
Mané 29'
Doucoure 32'
Firmino 55' [pen]
Salah 57'
Britos 90+3'

I can't even anything right now. Football must be back. Liverpool are absolutely back.

It is going to be a long damn season, for both better and worse.

Of course we get a microcosm of Liverpool in the opening match, the full spectrum of Liverpool in the opening match. Last season's first match set the narrative. I truly hope this one doesn't as well.

The first half was basically everything bad away from home against a bottom half side.

A parked bus, a big unit of a striker, and set plays. Conceding within eight minutes, conceding from a corner within eight minutes. The first opposition corner of the season, the first opposition shot of the season, the first opposition goal of the season: a point-blank header inside the six-yard box, indecision from Firmino and Matip as to whose at fault.

After 20 minutes, finally a response, neat interplay between Mané and Can, an even neater finish from Mané. But less than three minutes later, a Watford attack of Liverpool's own making, Cleverley in behind Moreno, a cross that Alexander-Arnold clears off of Matip which falls directly to Doucoure. A couple of daft individual decisions and an unfortunate deflection. And then 13 minutes of futility until halftime, with a couple of good chances but no goal.

But then we got good Liverpool. We got that attack. We got Salah winning a penalty off Firmino's pass within 10 minutes of the restart, easily scored by Firmino. We got Salah's tap-in less than two minutes later: Lovren's well-aimed pass over the top, Firmino in space, a chipped was-it-a-shot-or-pass to the Egyptian. Two clear-cut chances in the space of two minutes and two goals. 57 minutes into the new season and Liverpool's blitzkrieg front three have all scored.

For the next 35 minutes, we get okay Liverpool. A bit too frightening Liverpool, somewhat annoying Liverpool, but seemingly good enough Liverpool. Watford with far too much possession and Liverpool too focused on the counter-attack for comfort, but Liverpool still with all the chances. Between the restart and the 93rd minute, Watford had one shot: Holebas from nowhere not close in the 76th. Liverpool had six: Moreno tipped over, Matip off the crossbar, Lovren saved from a corner, Salah blazing over and into the side netting, and Wijnaldum's errant effort from the top of the box.

Any one of those chances taken – all decent, five of six from inside the box, but four of six off-target – seals the match.

Liverpool need one of those chances. Liverpool will probably always need to take at least one of those chances. Because three minutes into the five of added time, bad Liverpool happens.

It all starts from the injury time substitution. Which probably isn't fair, at least to the player coming on, but I'm far from fair and far from caring right now.

So, Joe Gomez replaces Trent Alexander-Arnold. I understand wanting to waste 30 seconds, but why change the defense? Why not Wijnaldum or Mané? And, of course, within 30 seconds, Gomez commits a soft foul deep on the right flank. The free kick's cleared, but Watford immediately regroup with Liverpool scrambling into shape, and Mignolet has to save Britos' blast from the top of the box.

And then the corner. Another corner. Another delivery towards the six-yard box from the player who assisted Watford's opener. Wijnaldum's missed header sets up Richarlison. Mignolet's flap leads to Britos heading in on the goal kick. Britos is arguably offside. Britos is absolutely interfering with Mignolet. There's a decision Liverpool's way in there somewhere, but it's ignored by both referee and linesman. And Watford are level. And Liverpool have thrown away points late in the game, as happened in four matches against bad teams last season, three of them away from home: Bournemouth twice, Sunderland, and Manchester United.

Arsenal snatch three points with two goals in the final ten minutes yesterday. Liverpool drop two. It's one of 38 here, but that bodes poorly.

You know what bodes even more poorly? Four Watford shots on-target, three Watford goals. Four Watford shots from inside the six-yard box, three Watford goals. Three Watford clear-cut chances – compared to two for Liverpool, and one of those was a penalty – three Watford goals. Three Watford corners, two Watford goals.

One game in, and we seemingly have all the proof we need that Liverpool really will have to outscore everyone to win, because that defense is going to try to kill us all season long. Meet the new season, same as the old season.

Liverpool scored three and failed to win just once last season: that away match at Bournemouth, where Liverpool somehow contrived to throw away a 3-1 lead in the final 15 minutes. At least this wasn't that?

But this obviously wasn't good enough. And we all know why.

And we're all increasingly less convinced that Liverpool will ever be able to consistently fix it.

11 August 2017

Liverpool at Watford 08.12.17

7:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 05.01.17
6-1 Liverpool (h) 11.06.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 05.08.16
0-3 Watford (a) 12.20.15

Last three preseason matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Athletic (n); 1-1 Atletico aet [4-5 pens] (n); 3-0 Bayern (a)
Watford: 0-0 Sociedad (h); 0-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Eibar (n)

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Alexander-Arnold Matip Lovren Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Salah Firmino Mané

Hey, football's back! If nothing else, it'll be a welcomed respite from the summer transfer window.

Yes, yes, Coutinho wants to leave. That sucks. Can't do anything else except take FSG at their word and assume he's not getting sold for any price, and hope he responds as Luis Suarez responded after the Great Arsenal Release Clause Fiasco of 2013.

Let's worry about the football instead. It's a much more tangible worry.

Coutinho wasn't likely to play tomorrow any due to a back injury (yes, you can put back injury in sarcastic quotation marks if you'd like, it makes no difference to the situation). Neither will Sturridge, Lallana, or Clyne.

We've yet to start the season and Liverpool will be missing two absolutely certain starters, one starter-if-anyone's-missing-in-the front-five, and one of Liverpool's best attacking replacements.

This bodes ominously.

With those four absent, the line-up pretty much writes itself, at least in 10 of 11 positions. The only other question is at left-back: whether Klopp sticks with ol' reliable Milner, rewards Moreno for his preseason performances, or goes with the new signing. It's probably going to be Milner, at least in the beginning, and I'd hope that Andrew Robertson makes the position his own by the end of the season, but, screw it, I'm guessing Moreno, for how much possession Liverpool's going to have, for his pace, for how he's looked over the last month, for his potential partnership with Sadio Mané on that flank, and, admittedly, for the LOLs.

Despite all the hand-wringing and absentees and THE SKY IS FALLING, Liverpool still have that front three. This will be Mohamed Salah's full debut, and he'll have it alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Liverpool have a reasonably secure and reasonably dynamic midfield, although it's okay to worry about the creativity without Coutinho and Lallana.

With that front six, even considering who's missing, and considering how Liverpool's defense ended last season, there should be reason for optimism. I know that's hard for us.

But Watford's more than ready to bring Liverpool back down to earth. A side that beat Liverpool 3-0 the first time they hosted Jürgen Klopp's side, in arguably Liverpool's worst performance of 2015-16. A fixture which Liverpool narrowly won last season thanks to Emre Can's unrepeatable acrobatics and Seb Prödl missing a clear-cut chance in second-half injury time. The type of side with the type of style which so often frustrates Liverpool. A new manager who embarrassed Liverpool last season, in charge for Hull's hilariously awful 2-0 win in February.

Watford have had a fairly busy summer – beside Marco Silva in the dugout, they've added Andre Gray and Richarlison up front, Nathaniel Chalobah and Will Hughes in midfield, Kiko Femenia at right-back, and Daniel Bachmann as Gomes' understudy in goal.

If preseason is any indication, tomorrow's XI seems likely to be a mix of old and new. Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Doucoure, Chalobah; Richarlison, Cleverley, Pereyra; Gray.

Watford have options. Prödl could start at center-back, Kiko Femenia at right-back. We could see either Capoue or Hughes in midfield, either part of the deeper two or as the more advanced. There's Amrabat or Success if Richarlison's not ready. There's Stefano Okaka or Jerome Sinclair if Andre Gray's not.

Club captain Troy Deeney will, however, miss out through injury, while both Cathcart and Kabasele are questionable.

This is probably Watford's strongest squad in years. That's a diligent, deep, and rugged back-line, and similar goes for the two defensive midfielders. Pereyra's incredibly tricky, and Richarlison's billed similarly. Andre Gray has punished Liverpool before in an early season away fixture.

As happened 12 months ago, Liverpool need to start as they mean to continue. They laid down a marker at Arsenal, a raucous 4-3 which highlighted both Liverpool's scoring prowess and defensive insecurity, and also foretold Liverpool's unbeaten run against the rest of the top seven that season.

Tomorrow, Liverpool can demonstrate that they're capable of winning more these matches this season, the ones we so often worried about last season. They can put themselves in the correct stead and mindset for Tuesday's oh-so-important Champions League qualifier.

They can show that, for all the drama over the last couple of months, this is still Liverpool, dammit, and Liverpool will be again be a force to be reckoned with this season.

Football's back. Don't make us regret it.