16 December 2017

Liverpool at Bournemouth 12.17.17

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 04.05.17
3-4 Bournemouth (a) 12.04.16
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.17.16
1-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.28.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 West Brom (h); 1-1 Everton (h); 7-0 Spartak (h)
Bournemouth: 0-1 United (a); 2-2 Palace (a); 1-1 Southampton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 13; Firmino 5; Coutinho, Mané 4; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Can, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Bournemouth: Defoe, Wilson 3; King, Surman 2; Arter, S Cook, Daniels, Fraser, Stanislas 1

Referee: Andre Marriner (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren Klavan Milner
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Mané Firmino Coutinho

We're having a minor crisis of confidence here.

Two stuttering, slightly unlucky draws to slow down Liverpool's run. Stifled attacking play, dismal finishing, and some unhelpful referee decisions. It's not been the most enjoyable week, especially considering the six weeks which came before.

So, sure, it's a great time to play a side that twice drove Liverpool insane last season, twice coming back to take points off of Liverpool despite a Liverpool lead, drawing 2-2 at Anfield despite a 2-1 lead in the 86th minute and losing 3-4 at Bournemouth despite a 3-1 lead in the 75th minute. It took a few more matches to truly set in, but defeat at Bournemouth last December marked the beginning of Liverpool's winter of discontent a year ago. Liverpool topped the table going into that round of fixtures. They'd never see first again after that loss.

At least Bournemouth won't play like Everton or West Brom. Eddie Howe doesn't know how. Their last game at United seems illustrative. Bournemouth attacked United. Bournemouth out-shot United. Bournemouth looked to both build play and counter quickly. And Bournemouth only lost because of one well-taken Lukaku header and an inability to get past De Gea at the other end.

Which makes it even harder to guess Liverpool's XI, not that it's been anywhere near easy lately. There will undoubtedly be a surprise or two left out. But Liverpool seem more likely to play 4-3-3, because Liverpool won't have to draw out a reluctant home side as they did at West Ham, Stoke, and Brighton, because Bournemouth are coming at them anyway.

Mignolet will come back in at keeper. Gomez will return at full-back. Lovren and Klavan have to remain center-backs. Robertson probably gets a breather given he's had two consecutive starts after not playing for a few months. As usual, the front six is harder to guess. Let's start with the one I'm guessing absent. Liverpool's player of the season so far: Mohamed Salah. He's started every match since Stoke, four already in December, when every other attacker's had at least one match on the bench.

Salah's absence should mean either Coutinho or Oxlade-Chamberlain in the front three. The former would lead to Henderson, Can, and Wijnaldum in midfield, the latter seeing one of them left out as Coutinho plays deeper. Lallana's probably only fit enough for the bench, having made just one short substitute appearance a few weeks back. Sturridge is, again, struggling with some sort of minor injury.

But, of course, I could be completely wrong and it's 4-4-2 with Salah and Firmino and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Coutinho and Henderson and Wijnaldum and who knows anymore it's almost been refreshing to not be able to guess the side. Well, as long as Liverpool win.

Not that it's especially mattered against Liverpool lately, but Bournemouth are winless in their last five, with draws against Swansea, Southampton, and Palace, and losses against Burnley and United. They also have a mammoth week ahead. Not that sides don't or won't get up for games against Liverpool – especially after last season's fixtures – but they've a League Cup quarterfinal at Chelsea on Wednesday followed by a trip to runaway leaders Manchester City next Saturday.

So we'll see some rotation from Bournemouth. An XI something like Begovic; Smith, S Cook, Ake, Daniels; Stanislas, L Cook, Surman, Fraser; King, Defoe. But Eddie Howe's necessarily rotated his side over the last few weeks anyway, which makes guessing the XI slightly a fool's game here as well. Gosling and Arter are other options in midfield; Pugh and Ibe could play on the flanks. But that back line has usually been the back line, and King and Defoe are usually preferred up front – although Callum Wilson could definitely pose a few threats on the counter. Federici, Mings, and ex-Liverpool player Brad Smith are out injured.

This will be Liverpool's ninth match in the last month. They'll have another five after this before finally getting a week between fixtures. It's gotten gritty. It's gone off the boil. There have been disappointments.

Liverpool are still unbeaten during this stretch. Liverpool are still playing better, with a deeper squad, than they were at this time last season, even during the last two draws.

So rather than tiresome and unwelcomed, this is another opportunity. Not only an opportunity to reverse the recent minor rot, but also to avenge last season's failures in this fixture.

14 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: Everton (h), Spartak Moscow (h), Brighton (a), Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

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

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

The finishing pixie is a cruel, cruel mistress.

Liverpool had been flying.

At least three goals a game in eight of nine games, from Huddersfield through Spartak.

And then Everton and West Brom happened, and we're seemingly back to the bad old days of 1-1 Burnley, Spartak, and Newcastle.

To be fair, it is not easy to score when the opposition often look like this.

Three defenders directly in front of the man on the ball, six other defenders packed into the penalty box. And the lone striker, the other outfield opponent, is still in camera frame. All 11 West Brom players, in about a quarter of the pitch. And I swear I'm not cherry-picking moments here; this was randomly grabbed from the BBC Match of the Day highlights. I could have chosen eight other moments from that package, and 30 more had I bothered to go from the full match.

But this is the right of the weak. If Liverpool can't find a way past it – which they had done a whole lot of times over the last month and a half – then it's Liverpool's fault.

And it's not helping that Liverpool's previously flying front four have not had a good last two games.

Yes, sample size, obviously. But everyone's shot accuracy (except Coutinho's, with all of his shots on-target in the last two games from outside the box) and conversion has fallen off a cliff against Everton and West Brom. Salah especially has reverted to mere mortality, putting just one of nine shots on-target in the last two games. And he scored with that one on-target.

Liverpool had seven clear-cut chances in the 7-0 win against Spartak Moscow a week ago. And Liverpool converted six of them.

Liverpool had seven clear-cut chances combined in the draws against Everton and West Brom. Mané's fast break shot wide and Salah and Gomez's headers off-target against Everton; Firmino's shot wide, Salah's header off-target, Wijnaldum's toe-poke cleared off the line, and Solanke's shot cleared off the line against West Brom. Five off-target, two cleared off the goal line by opposition defenders.

Three of Liverpool's fabulous front four getting chances to win the match, all put off-target.

Them's the breaks. Swings and roundabouts.

It's not as if Liverpool haven't had the opportunities.

Liverpool just haven't taken those opportunities. It happens, evidently even to the best of us.

And, as the match went on, we became increasingly convinced this was not going to be a good day.

We're veering dramatically into obvious territory, but when Liverpool score early, good things happen. Lots of goals happen. When Liverpool don't, *gulps, tugs collar*

Liverpool have scored 11 goals this season after the 75th minute. That's a lot!

They mostly didn't matter. One against Hoffenheim, when Liverpool scored four; one against Arsenal, when Liverpool scored four; two at Maribor, when Liverpool scored seven; one against Huddersfield, when Liverpool scored three; one against Maribor, when Liverpool scored three; one at West Ham, when Liverpool scored four; two at Brighton, when Liverpool scored five; and two against Spartak, when Liverpool scored seven.

Liverpool have scored just two goals after the 60th minute in matches where they weren't already ahead. Mané's 74th-minute winner against Palace back in August and Salah's go-ahead goal in the 65th minute against Chelsea, a match that Liverpool drew 1-1 when Chelsea scored in the 85th minute.

Just two go-ahead goals after the hour mark, with one that Liverpool ultimately threw away.

That's not good.

Conversely, Liverpool have lost once (Leicester in the League Cup) and drawn five (Watford, Sevilla, Sevilla, Chelsea, and Everton) thanks to goals conceded after an hour.

That's not good.

Liverpool have won 13 matches so far this season.

There have been five second-half game-winning goals, but two of them only because Liverpool went on to concede later. Otherwise, those matches would have been won in the 35th and 23rd minutes respectively. All the games where Liverpool scored four or more – and we've already had six of them – all saw the opening goal by the 31st minute at the latest.

So, yes, as said all season, this team lives and dies by the goals they score. And they either score those goals in the first 30 or 50 minutes at most, or else it's a no good, very bad day.

To be fair, it takes just one referee decision (I thought we weren't calling accidental, close-range ball-to-hand as handball this season. Or is that only for defenders, not attackers?) or a couple of inches on a shot in either direction, and Liverpool eke out a second 1-0 win of the campaign. Liverpool had chances to win, and they actually had most of them late in the match; three of those four aforementioned clear-cut chances came after the 56th minute.

But it didn't happen.

So, now, Liverpool have drawn its fifth league match at Anfield this season. In nine attempts. Five draws (three 1-1, two 0-0), one 1-0 win, two 3-0 wins, and one 4-0 win. Yes, yes, still unbeaten, but it's not quite Fortress Anfield. Not to compare this to one of the best campaigns in recent memory, but I can't help remember 2008-09, where Liverpool could and should have won the league if not for midseason draws at Anfield.

Liverpool have dropped two points, for the second consecutive match, and we're rightly aggrieved about it. It hasn't been rotation's fault. Subs came late yesterday, but it hasn't really been the manager's fault. The play hasn't been great, but on the whole, the players haven't been awful. Except in front of goal.

It comes down to goals. With this side, it's always about goals. And in the last two matches, Liverpool haven't scored the goals that Liverpool had been scoring.

12 December 2017

Liverpool v West Brom 12.13.17

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Gold

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.16.17
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.22.16
1-1 (a) 05.15.16
2-2 (h) 12.13.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Everton (h); 7-0 Spartak (h); 5-1 Brighton (a)
West Brom: 0-1 Swansea (a); 0-0 Palace (h); 2-2 Newcastle (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 13; Firmino 5; Coutinho, Mané 4; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Can, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
West Brom: Robson-Kanu, Rodriguez, Rondon 2; Chadli, Evans, Field, Hegazi, Morrison, Phillips 1

Referee: Paul Tierney (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Trent A-A Lovren Klavan Milner
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Mané Firmino Coutinho

Sunday was the Sam Allardyce Redemption Match, and now we get Alan Pardew as a second act. Fantastic. The magical manager tour is coming to take us away.

It shouldn't matter. And Liverpool should have been up for this match regardless, but now they've extra motivation after Sunday's miscarriage of justice.

Maybe we'll get the first choice front four, but I suspect rotation and rest will continue and this time it's Salah's turn. But even if that's the case, your guess remains as good as mine who will start and how they'll line up. As per usual of late.

Maybe the above. Maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flank with Coutinho in midfield. Maybe 4-4-2, with Sturridge, Solanke, or even Ings joining Firmino up top and one of Henderson, Can, and Wijnaldum left out. Moreno and Matip remain absent, but Adam Lallana returns to contention. Given it's his first game back in the squad after a short absence after a long absence, I suspect he'll be used as a substitute at most.

Whomever starts, in whichever formation, I expect a reaction to Sunday's disappointment. I expect blood and thunder, hellfire and brimstone. I expect – nay, demand – goals. Lots of them.

Especially since Liverpool's opponent is winless since August.

You live by Pulisball, you eventually die by Pulisball. And that's exactly what happened. West Brom finished 13th in 2014-15 after Pulis took over midway through the season, 14th in 2015-16, and 10th in 2016-17. It was exactly as expected: good enough and organized enough to stay up, but not a whole lot more, and a whole lot of ugly football. And then West Brom won its first three matches this season: 1-0 against Bournemouth and Burnley, 3-1 in the League Cup.

And then West Brom fell off a cliff. They'd draw four and lose seven in the next 11 games and Pulis would be fired with West Brom in 17th, just a point outside the relegation zone.

And now West Brom's contracted a severe case of Pardew-mania.

Pardew's played all three of West Brom's strikers in the front three of a 4-3-3 in his two matches in charge, but Klopp doesn't think that'll be the case tomorrow. McClean, Brunt, and Burke are all more orthodox wingers, as are Chadli, Phillips, and Brunt if they're available. Incidentally, West Brom are yet to score since Pardew became manager despite playing three strikers in a front three.

My guess at tomorrow's XI is still pretty close to the side we've seen from Pardew's two games. Foster; Nyom, Hegazi, Evans, Gibbs; Livermore, Yacob, Field; McClean, Rondon, Rodriguez. Morrison, Barry, and Dawson are absent through injury, while Chadli, Phillips, and Brunt are doubtful. If any of the doubtful three are available, they'd be definite possibilities on the flanks. Krychowiak could also start in midfield in place of Field.

Pardew doesn't have the same history of frustrating Liverpool that Allardyce has, but we've had our moments. His first meeting with Klopp's Liverpool saw Palace win 2-1. His record for Newcastle and Palace against Rodgers' Liverpool was 2W-2D-3L. He is one of that tribe of perpetual Premier League managers whose career goal seems to be to take charge of every single club outside the top six.

And Pardew's style is more attacking than Allardyce, but it won't be that much more attacking. The remnants of Pulisball still linger. West Brom remain tough to beat: 0-4 v Chelsea – Pulis' last match – and 0-2 at Arsenal are West Brom's only losses by more than one goal. Only Chelsea and City have scored more than twice against West Brom. West Brom haven't scored in Pardew's two matches, but they've only conceded once: Swansea's late winner from a fortuitous corner scramble on Saturday.

Hegazi's big like West Brom's center-backs are always big, but can actually play a little. Jonny Evans was supposedly wanted by Manchester City last summer. Barry and Yacob can ugly up a game in midfield, Rondon and Rodriguez are handfuls on both counter-attacks and set plays.

But if Liverpool can do Liverpool – the Liverpool we saw in seven wins while scoring three goals over the last ten matches, not the Liverpool which fumbles and frustrates and concedes from a late stupid mistake, mind you – it won't matter. It shouldn't matter.

11 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: Spartak Moscow (h), Brighton (a), Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

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

We have said it before, we will say it again.

Liverpool live and die by the goals they score. And they only scored one on Sunday.

The finishing pixie is a cruel mistress. Liverpool had been on an almost unsustainable scoring streak. That ended against Everton.

The three above pieces showing Liverpool's shooting should be sufficient. That shots, assists, chances created graphic. That shot-by-shot graphic. That shot location graphic. Ouch.

23 Liverpool shots, but only three on-target: Salah's goal, Mané's egregious bicycle kick attempt from just outside the box, and Coutinho's free kick from 30 yards out. 13% shooting accuracy, when the side had averaged 42.5% in the six previous league matches since the Tottenham defeat.

Three Opta-defined clear-cut chances, all with Liverpool up 1-0, and all off-target: Mané's miss with three players waiting for the tap-in, and Salah and Gomez's second-half headers. Liverpool converted 13 of 18 clear-cut chances – 72.2% – in the six previous league matches since the Tottenham defeat.

Sure, Liverpool's shot quality was a good deal worse than in previous matches. 13 of 23 from outside the box, and an average xG per shot of 0.087. Liverpool's xG per shot this season prior to Sunday's game was 0.116 and since Spurs it had been 0.149.

But Liverpool still had the chances to win that game.

One of which will live long in the memory.

This game hinged upon two moments. Sadio Mané's miss in the first-half added time was the first.

*screams internally*

Remember Liverpool's second goal against Spartak Moscow? Mané to Salah to Firmino to Coutinho. Quick passes, unselfishly looking for a teammate rather than doing it yourself. The final pass taking the chance quality from – and this is a rough guess here – something like 15% to 40%. Do that. Always aim to do that. Don't do this.

If Liverpool get a second goal, going into halftime two-up rather than one, there's an excellent chance that Liverpool score more. Everton have to come out, whereas they can stick deep and continue to hope for just one moment and one mistake at 1-0, and even though two of Liverpool's best counter-attacking players weren't on the pitch, Salah and Mané should have thrived with more space in behind compared to how the match played out at 1-0. Two Liverpool goals had led to at least three in eight of the previous nine matches. Liverpool have finished with just two goals twice this season, and never in the league, and it hasn't happened since early September.

But 1-0 still should have been enough. Because Everton's penalty in the 77th minute was the second moment. And that was not a penalty. (Edit: I don't know why the GIFs aren't loading here; click on them to open in a new window and play)

Come on, now.

Okay, yes, camera angles can lie.

So, here, this is a worse angle for Lovren – which unfortunately, was also the referee's angle – but you can still see Calvert-Lewin move towards and into Lovren, then fall to the ground as Lovren's pulling his arms away from him.

I don't care that Lovren's caught on the back foot and gets too close and "gives the referee a decision to make." I don't care that Lovren has previous, which makes us extra likely to extra blame him. That you're giving that penalty against Liverpool on Liverpool's own ground when Everton have had just two shots and next to no possession is a crime against humanity. Especially after the non-penalty which Brighton got last weekend. That was forgivable because Liverpool were cruising by that point. That made it almost funny. This was assuredly not funny.

I also can't help but think that was Grade A "Big Sam's an English manager and Calvert-Lewin's an English striker" beef.

Without one of those two moments, the other doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter that Liverpool rotated more heavily than expected, that Liverpool left out both Firmino and Coutinho, as well as Can and Wijnaldum. Liverpool should have done enough, even if 1-0 is rarely ever enough for this side.

And now we get a result that brings memories to the mediocre old days. Liverpool's fifth 1-1 draw of the season, the most common score line so far. Three of those 1-1 draws came with Liverpool taking the lead but losing it – the last three of them.

The mediocre old days of an inability to break down incredibly deep sides, with a bunch of possession and a bunch of shots but not enough good shots and not enough of those shots converted. The mediocre old days of drawing a match that Liverpool *should* have won against a side they *should* be beating. Something we thought we'd mostly gotten past with the wins over Huddersfield, Maribor, West Ham, Southampton, Stoke, Brighton, and Spartak.

So, yes, it's a set-back. But it's not the end of days. It's one match, one during a spell overloaded with matches, against seven before where Liverpool did what they couldn't on Sunday.

10 December 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Salah 42'
Rooney 77' [pen]

We've been Allardyced. And Pawsoned. And it's really damned annoying.

But the story is still the story we've known before, even if it's been awhile since seeing that story. If Liverpool don't score more than one, Liverpool are at risk of doing a Liverpool. Which is exactly what happened, even if it was never a penalty because come the hell on.

It's everybody's fault.

It's Sam Allardyce's fault, because he made the game exactly as ugly as he always does. That felt more like a Sam Allardyce match than a Merseyside Derby. Not ugly as in vicious, which these games can be, but ugly as in the least ambitious side Liverpool's faced this season. Which is completely their right, and proven right. Two massively, massively deep lines of four, the most possession Liverpool have had in a match this season. The most since losing 0-2 to Burnley in August 2015, actually.

It's Jürgen Klopp's fault, because Liverpool couldn't cope with the ugly. Because Klopp kept Firmino and Coutinho out, again using the full squad to prevent the winter collapse which happened last season. Because he continued to make unexpected changes to the starting XI but this time got burned. Because that 4-3-3 couldn't play through the middle because Henderson and Milner aren't creative enough and Mané and Salah were too wide, and crossing did not work. Eight Liverpool shots in the first 41 minutes of the match: three off-target, five blocked. Five from outside the box, just one in the Danger Zone.

It's not Mohamed Salah's fault, because in the 42nd minute, Mohamed Salah did Mohamed Salah things, turning Cuco Martina, beating Idrissa Gana, and curling an unstoppable shot past Pickford to finally break the deadlock. His 13th goal in the league this season, his 19th goal in all competitions. He's really good at the football.

It's Sadio Mané's fault, because just before halftime, Mané wins possession and steams towards goal and he's got three runners inside for a tap-in and he screws a left-footed shot wide of the goal. That was Liverpool's first clear-cut chance of the game. And 2-0 kills the game. It kills it dead. Liverpool desperately needed 2-0. Liverpool would not get 2-0. This remains unforgivable.

It's Jürgen Klopp's fault, because he took off Liverpool's best player in the 67th minute. That was Klopp's adjustment to Allardyce's changes. Not Can or Wijnaldum for bodies in midfield. Not Coutinho for creation. Firmino – who is a very good player who I like very much but does the pressing more than anything else and that's not what was needed – for Salah. I understand worries about player overload, especially in regards to Salah, but we've proven time and time again that 1-0 isn't enough for Liverpool.

And 1-0 wasn't enough today. Even though Everton had next to no possession, even though Everton had all of two shots to that point, both from well outside the box and not dangerous in the slighest.

It's Craig Pawson's fault, because that was almost as soft a penalty as Brighton's in Liverpool's last match. It's Dejan Lovren's fault because he did a Dejan Lovren thing again. It's Firmino's fault, because he tried an incredibly unlikely back heel to try to get a doubly-marked Mané a chance at goal and lost possession and now Liverpool have five players ahead of the ball (including both left-sided players) and Everton countered down Liverpool's left side and Rooney crossed to Calvert-Lewin from deep and Calvert-Lewin fell over because Lovren looked in his direction.

And it's Liverpool's fault. Because, once again, Liverpool lost a one-goal lead they took into the 70th minute. As at Watford, against Sevilla, at Sevilla, and against Chelsea. Because, once again, Liverpool couldn't find a needed late winner; the last time Liverpool got one after the 70th minute was 2-1 at Stoke last April. The last time Liverpool got one after the 80th minute was at Everton almost a calendar year ago. Because, once again, substitutions did little and the other manager's changes helped more than Liverpool's.

23 shots to three. 79% possession. And Liverpool drew. Because they couldn't create more chances, they couldn't take the few chances they did create, and then they committed one soft, unlucky, and stupid mistake that a referee absolutely helped. And then dropped points from a winning position for the fifth time this season and the 23rd time since Klopp became manager. Against the team you want to beat more than any other.

It is absolutely infuriating.

But here's the thing. Liverpool are still unbeaten in their last 10 matches. Liverpool are still fourth, a point ahead of Arsenal and two ahead of Tottenham. Everton still haven't won a Merseyside Derby since Roy Freaking Hodgson was manager. Mo Salah remains amazing, Joe Gomez is an absolute prodigy, and on the whole, Liverpool did more good things than bad things today. In the seventh match the side's had to play in the last three weeks.

Still. It could have been more. It should have been more. And – not to be too selfish after all the good we've seen over the last eight weeks – it's certainly not for the first time this season.

09 December 2017

Liverpool v Everton 12.10.17

9:15am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.01.17
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.19.16
4-0 Liverpool (h) 04.20.16
1-1 (a) 10.04.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 7-0 Spartak (h); 5-1 Brighton (a); 3-0 Stoke (a)
Everton: 3-0 Apollon (a); 2-0 Huddersfield (h); 4-0 West Ham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 12; Firmino 5; Coutinho, Mané 4; Sturridge 2; Alex O-C, Can, Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Everton: Rooney 7; Niasse 5; Baines, Calvert-Lewin, Sigurðsson 2; Williams 1

Referee: Craig Pawson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren Klavan Milner
Mané Can Henderson Coutinho
Salah Firmino

This seems like a good place to start:

It is a mischievous question to Jonjoe Kenny that may require some thought.

What is preferable? Winning the Under 20 World Cup or ending an 18-year winless streak at Anfield in the Merseyside derby?

No hesitation. “Winning the derby,” he says, snappily. “Everything I have ever wanted is win a derby. To go to Anfield to win? I don’t think you would get much better.”

Liverpool haven't lost a Merseyside Derby since October 2010 – since Roy Hodgson! – 15 derbies before tomorrow's. Liverpool haven't lost a derby at Anfield since September 1999. Jürgen Klopp's won his three derbies by a combined 8-1 margin.

This is the history that Everton has to cope with. And these are the expectations that Liverpool has to cope with.

It's seemingly a good time for Liverpool to play one of its most important matches of the season, at least for the supporters. They're unbeaten in nine with seven wins and two draws. They've won their last three matches by a combined 15-1 margin, including 5-1 and 7-0 wins in the last two. Liverpool's attacking superstars – Coutinho, Salah, Firmino, and Mané – are simply taking folks to the woodshed, but Liverpool have also kept clean sheets in five of those last nine, including four of the last five at Anfield.

Moreno is the only new player ruled out – and I very much expect to see Milner instead of Robertson tomorrow – although I guess I'll mention that multiple outlets ran with a "Coutinho not pictured in training!" story yesterday. For what that's worth. I'd be surprised if he missed out, but let's not pretend I have any special insight.

I suspect the larger question is Liverpool's formation. 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 or something else? It remains wild that I'm writing that sentence after we saw 4-3-3 in literally every match for 12 months, no matter personnel or opposition.

I'm often of an "if it ain't broke..." mindset. And Liverpool certainly ain't been broke lately. But the above XI could clearly line up in 4-3-3 – as we thought would happen prior to kick-off against Spartak, and I suspect it'll be that XI whether Liverpool decide to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. I remain concerned about Henderson in a double-pivot, I'd be concerned about both Coutinho and Milner ostensibly on the left given that neither is left-footed.

That is also almost exactly the same XI as against Spartak on Wednesday, with Henderson, Milner, and Mignolet for Wijnaldum, Moreno, and Karius the only changes. And we've usually seen one or two more changes over the last few weeks, given Klopp's emphasis on fresh players to maximize Liverpool's style. So, maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain. Maybe Sturridge or Solanke. Maybe even Lallana, who's back in full training and available. I've been guessing wrong a lot more than guessing right lately, and given results compared to guessing right a lot more often last season, I'm okay with that.

Whichever formation, and whomever starts, the game plan remains the same. Attackers attack, early and often, from all angles. Defenders defend. Midfielders support where needed, more often slightly deeper than we saw earlier in the season.

Get at these, no matter local rivalries. Do you, do what's succeeded in recent matches against varying opponents.

Meanwhile, Everton ain't doing too badly, at least compared to doing really, really badly for the first few months of the season. They've won three consecutive, after a spell where they won just once in 12.

They've got a new manager. We've met him before. Sam Allardyce.

Multiple clubs under Allardyce have foiled multiple incarnations of Liverpool. Including in Allardyce's last two matches: a 2-2 draw with Sunderland at Anfield with Liverpool throwing away a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes, and a 1-2 loss against Crystal Palace at Anfield despite Liverpool scoring first and scoring early.

There are players in this Everton squad who can hurt Liverpool. Calvert-Lewin on the break. Sigurðsson on set plays. Wayne Rooney loves playing against Liverpool, sometimes too much. Pickford is an excellent keeper, and there remains the worry a keeper will somehow play on turbo mode against Liverpool.

Everton have used pretty much the same XI in the last two league fixtures, the first before Allardyce was technically manager. 4-1-4-1, with Pickford; Kenny, Keane, Williams, Martina; Gueye; Lennon, Davies, Rooney, Sigurðsson; Calvert-Lewin. Everton, already eliminated from the Europa League with just one point through the first five group games, played a completely changed side in Cyprus – even Allardyce didn't bother to go – and I doubt any involved will start tomorrow, including Lookman, Klaassen, Schneiderlin, and Mirallas. McCarthy, Barkley, Funes Mori, Coleman, Bolasie, and Stekelenburg are out injured; Leighton Baines is doubtful. Both Keane and Jagielka are back after missing the last match.

We know how Allardyce will try to stop Liverpool. We know that Allardyce's alpha and omega will be stopping Liverpool, then maybe hoping for maybe a counter-attack or set play stomach punch. Defend deep, deny space, have a little kick at those dangerous Liverpool attackers. Maybe more than a little kick; it is a derby after all, where a referee might tend toward leniency. Frustrate, frustrate, frustrate.

It's worked against Liverpool before, both for Allardyce and for others. But not lately. Not when tried by Huddersfield, Maribor, Southampton, Brighton, or Stoke.

Now Liverpool have to do it again.

07 December 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 7-0 Spartak Moscow

Previous Match Infographics: Brighton (a), Stoke (a), Chelsea (h), Sevilla (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Maribor (h), Huddersfield (h), Tottenham (a), Maribor (a), United (h), Newcastle (a), Spartak Moscow (a), Leicester (a), Burnley (h), Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

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

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

That formation was not what we expected. Everyone, including UEFA, had it as a 4-3-3. Mané left, as usual. Salah right, as usual. Firmino central, as usual. Coutinho in midfield. But that was not how Liverpool played. Liverpool played 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2, depending on your preferred nomenclature, a similar formation to the side we saw at Stoke and West Ham, but with all four of Liverpool's superlative front four involved for the first time.

And if it confused us – people who watch Liverpool too devotedly, every single week – what do you think it did to Spartak?

It did this. 7-0, against a side that hadn't conceded more than twice in a match since August 19, whose only matches where they'd conceded more than two both came when Spartak had a player sent off.

A hat-trick for Philippe Coutinho, the first Liverpool hat-trick in more than two years. Two goals for Mané, a goal and assist for Firmino, a goal and two hockey assists for Salah.

7-0 for the second time this season, for the second time in eight weeks. 7-0 against two different group stage sides, one home and one away.

7-0 against Spartak Moscow, who conceded once, once, once, twice, and once in their other group stages games. 7-0 at Maribor who...

Liverpool's second goal's an excellent example of how these players can absolutely demolish any opponent, especially when in playing from positions the opposition didn't necessarily expect.

Mané picks up possession on the halfway line (as he also did in Liverpool's third and sixth goals), from Lovren's clearing header. Salah's dropped deeper this time, bringing Bocchetti with him, while Tasci's well behind the other three defenders out of the picture, trying to keep Firmino in front of him. And Eschenko's basically where he should be to keep an eye on Coutinho.

Firmino makes the run from inside to out, and Bochetti goes with him, trying to maintain the back four spacing, which creates the lane for Mané's pass to Salah. Eschenko has to come over to help, because Tasci's still way too deep to do anything about it. Which leaves space for a certain someone after Salah slips it in to Firmino.

Uh oh. And it's not as if this was Liverpool's only play. Firmino's in a fine place to shoot. There's a centering ball on for Salah, faster than Tasci and ball-side of Eschenko. But Firmino has the vision to find Coutinho. The most open player. The player who has the chance to take a shot most likely to go in.

"Uh oh" is damned right.

In this 7-0 win and Saturday's 5-1 win at Brighton, Liverpool have taken 29 combined shots. Coutinho, Salah, Mané, and Firmino took 26 of those. Those four players scored 10 of Liverpool's 12 goals – 11 if you want to give the front four (read: Coutinho) credit for Dunk's own goal on Saturday.

Liverpool did this with 17 shots yesterday and 12 last Saturday. Seven goals from 17, five goals from 12. 12 goals from 16 shots on-target combined. The finishing pixie is sprawled out, euphorically drunk, on the floor somewhere. Liverpool's shot accuracy has been bananas, Liverpool's shot conversion has been beyond bananas. It's probably somewhat unsustainable, but it's also been somewhat deserved. They're good shots, Brent. They're high-value shots, something Liverpool struggled with in its setbacks against bottom-half sides last season. Just as a brief example, Liverpool had three more clear-cut chances yesterday (seven) than Liverpool had shots from outside the box (four). I suspect you remember how often we screamed about outside-the-box shots last season.

So, the attack is attacking, which means that the defense can focus on defending. When the attack is this good, when the front four can create and score and do it themselves, the fullbacks and midfielders can play slightly deeper (although let's not downplay Milner's three assists in the second half here), a center-back's not striding forward to add another passer over the halfway line, and Liverpool's exposure to counter-attacks drops significantly.

And that's a big reason why while Liverpool have scored three or more goals in eight of their last nine matches, they've also kept a clean sheet in five of the last those nine. And it should be seven, if not for Willian's fluke and Brighton's non-penalty.

Liverpool have attacked well in the league of late; only City and United have scored more goals, and the 1-1 draw against Chelsea is the only match where Liverpool haven't scored at least three since late October. But we've really seen it in Europe. These poor sides – Hoffenheim, Maribor, Sevilla, and Spartak – often haven't known what's hit them. Two goals, four goals, two goals, one goal, seven goals, three goals, three goals, seven goals. Liverpool scored 23 goals in the group stage, the most any English side's gotten in the Champions League.

Those group stage sides only earned a few draws because Liverpool either wasted chances (see: Spartak away or, to a lesser extent, Sevilla at home) or did incredibly dumb things in defense (you know which match).

It's harder for Liverpool in the league, where most opponents have seen you before. Have played you before. In Europe, Liverpool have the advantage. There's only so much film you can watch, but then Coutinho's running at you, Salah's running behind you, Firmino's there but wait now he's there, they're coming from all angles, they're not stopping, and the ball's in the net. Again and again.

And, recently, Liverpool have been increasingly able to do it in the league as well.

Four all-world attackers, who are creating and converting at an insane pace.

Tactical flexibility, and a willingness to change the shape in order to both confuse the opponent and get the best out of those all-world attackers.

There's still pressing, but it's more around the halfway line than in the opposition half, which both draws out the opposition and gives Liverpool space to counter into, where they're creating and converting high-value chances.

A defense that's – more often than not, and more often than previously – actually protected, and can focus on defending.

And now, Liverpool are in the knock-out rounds of the Champions League for the first time since 2008-09. Where they'll play either Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Shaktar Donetsk, Porto, or Basel.

It's been fun lately. It's been very, very good football. But there's still loads more work to do, both in the league and Europe.

05 December 2017

Liverpool v Spartak Moscow 12.06.17

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2 and ESPN3

Previous Group results:
Liverpool: 3-3 Sevilla (a); 3-0 Maribor (h); 7-0 Maribor (a); 1-1 Spartak (a); 2-2 Sevilla (h)
Spartak: 1-1 Maribor (h); 1-2 Sevilla (a); 5-1 Sevilla (h); 1-1 Liverpool (h); 1-1 Maribor (a)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-1 Brighton (a); 3-0 Stoke (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h)
Spartak: 1-0 Arsenal Tula (a); 3-1 Zenit (h); 1-1 Maribor (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Firmino 6; Salah 5; Can 3; Alexander-Arnold, Coutinho 2; Mané, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sturridge 1
Spartak: Promes, Ze Luis 2; Fernando, Glushakov, L Adriano, Melgarejo, Samedov,1

Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Lovren Klavan Moreno
Wijnaldum Henderson Coutinho
Salah Firmino Mané

Not that I necessarily know what "full-strength, first-choice" is anymore, but I'm guessing "full-strength, first-choice" tomorrow.

4-3-3, because despite all the tweaks and variations we've seen in recent weeks, that's what Liverpool have played in Europe and that's what Liverpool have played at home. Karius in goal, because Karius has been the Champions League keeper. Gomez and Klavan are fit again, so Gomez and Moreno at fullback, and Lovren and Klavan at center-back. Coutinho and two more from Henderson, Can, and Wijnaldum in midfield; I'm guessing Can left out because he's a yellow away from suspension (along with Moreno) but *shrugs*. And Firmino, Salah, Mané up front, to wreak all sorts of havoc.

But, sure, I wouldn't be all that surprised if we get Oxlade-Chamberlain or Sturridge or Milner somewhere in the front six. Liverpool have eight matches between now and New Years' Day. There's a Merseyside Derby on Sunday. I don't think I've guessed a lineup remotely correctly since Sevilla. And Liverpool have options, increasingly so going by the lineups and results we've seen over the last month. Which is fun.

Meanwhile, Spartak have lost just once in the 12 matches since hosting Liverpool, a 1-2 defeat at Sevilla in this competition. They were seventh in the Russian Premier League with 14 points from 11 games when we last spoke, now they're fourth with 34 points from 19 games. But they have kept just two clean sheets during that stretch: a 0-0 draw against Amkar Perm five weeks ago and a 1-0 win at Arsenal Tula last Friday.

Spartak played 5-4-1 the last time these sides met, but that's not Spartak Moscow's usual formation. They've used 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 in almost all of their matches since. Maybe Spartak stick with what worked, as they stifled Liverpool fairly well – even if Liverpool's wastefulness was as much a culprit – but Liverpool now has been a vastly more potent side than the Liverpool of two months ago.

No Spartak player who was available for the last meeting between these sides will miss tomorrow's match; Kombarov, Tigiev, and Ananidze remain absent. But both Promes and Glushakov – important players who missed for the last tie – will be available. Promes is obviously the most terrifying, with 10 goals and eight assists in the league and Europe this season. Either Gomez or Moreno are going to have their hands full tomorrow.

Let's guess Selikhov; Eschenko, Tasci, Kutepov, Dzhiklya; Popov, Fernando, Glushakov; Samedov, L Adriano, Promes. As usual, emphasis on guess. It could be 4-4-2. It could be 5-4-1. Luis Adriano, approaching Promes in terms of both output and potential damage, could play on the flank with Ze Luis starting as the central striker, in place of Samedov.

Spartak need a win to qualify for the knockout rounds, three points behind Liverpool and two behind Sevilla. Liverpool will progress with a draw, topping the group with a win tomorrow. The only way Liverpool advance with a loss is if Sevilla somehow fail to win in Maribor, which is incredibly unlikely.

It's safe to assume that Liverpool won't play for the draw. That's not what Liverpool do, that's not how Liverpool succeed. Liverpool will go for the throat. Liverpool will look to score, repeatedly, as they've often done over the last month, with at least three goals scored in seven of their last eight matches. With just six goals conceded at home all season, and only one in the last five matches.

Draws against Sevilla (twice) and Spartak have made qualification harder than it should have been. Liverpool have one more chance to remedy that.