24 February 2018

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham

Goals:
Can 29'
Salah 51'
Firmino 57'
Antonio 59'
Mané 77'

*Insert usual superlatives about Liverpool's front three here*

This is the sixth time this season that Salah, Firmino, and Mané all score in the same match.

Salah has 31 goals and nine assists in all competitions. Firmino has 22 goals and 10 assists. Mané has 13 goals and seven assists. Combined, those three have scored 66 of Liverpool's 103 goals so far this season. It is still February.

This is the 20th time this season that Liverpool have scored three or more goals. In 40 matches. Half the time, we're getting at least three goals. 11 of those 20, we've gotten even more.

And Liverpool have now scored four goals in three consecutive matches against West Ham. You've need to go back to Luis Suarez at his Norwich-slaying best in 2012-13, 2013-14 since that's happened.

This is all sorts of bananas. And it's been egregiously fun more often than not. And it's somehow getting progressively better, as if that's even possible.

Yeah, it took a while for the flood gates to open. Salah hits the post within three minutes. Adrian saves van Dijk's header from a corner a couple of minutes later. It gets a little ragged. West Ham actually start to attack, and Arnautovic forces an excellent save from Karius on the counter, an audacious chip from distance tipped onto the crossbar.

But then, as at Brighton in December, Liverpool finally gets a set play to open the scoring. As at Brighton, it's a corner from the right side. As at Brighton, it's Emre Can, a powerful header over Evra from Salah's cross. And as at Brighton, Liverpool would then go on to get a few more goals.

Yeah, Liverpool made us nervous on a few occasions. The aforementioned Arnautovic chance, then another from outside the box saved by Karius just before halftime. Antonio pulling one back, seconds after coming off the bench, Emre Can running into Kouyate in the center circle, Kouyate springing the counter, Antonio finishing from a wide angle.

Liverpool were 3-0 up by the point. Salah got the second after Oxlade-Chamberlain's strong run through midfield before nutmegging Cresswell. Firmino got the third after Can took the ball from Mario on a hoofed goal kick and immediately passed over the top, with Firmino around Adrian and tapping in another no-look finish.

Both come from direct play – a one-two, then run through midfield; pressing to win back possession then a quick pass over the top. Both are Liverpool at its best with a lead, finished off by players in indescribable form.

We should not be nervous at 3-0. But Liverpool relax immediately after getting what looks a safe lead, and not for the first time. Can's dispossessed, West Ham are away, and we start wondering if Liverpool are gonna throw away a three-goal lead for the second time this season. All it takes is one more West Ham goal and heads are gone and heads are on pikes.

But that would not happen, as when Liverpool conceded against Hoffenheim, at Leicester, at West Ham, at Brighton, etc etc etc. Yes, Liverpool still throw away leads more often than we'd like, but Liverpool are also capable of protecting them. Usually by scoring more goals. Liverpool immediately have more chances –- Adrian saves shots from Salah, Firmino, and Mané, Mané hits the post when it looked easier to score – but more importantly, Liverpool have the ball. Liverpool don't allow chances because Liverpool don't allow West Ham the ball, coolly passing around with West Ham trying like hell to regain possession, only to eventually tire.

Then Liverpool kill the game. Again playing around at the back – which always makes us nervous! – but successfully drawing West Ham out, then Robertson to Milner to Firmino to Robertson to Mané, with the out wide, low cross, run into the six-yard box finally coming off.

And we're done here. Everybody makes subs. Liverpool have a couple more half-chances. There are no more goals, for either side. Only Liverpool goes home happy.

And, at least until tomorrow, Liverpool are going home in second place. With just ten games left to play.

23 February 2018

Liverpool v West Ham 02.24.18

10am ET, live in the US on CNBC

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (a) 11.04.17
4-0 Liverpool (a) 05.14.17
2-2 (h) 12.11.16
1-2 West Ham (a; FA Cup) 02.09.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Porto (a); 2-0 Southampton (a); 2-2 Tottenham (h)
West Ham: 2-0 Watford (h); 1-3 Brighton (a); 1-1 Palace (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 22; Firmino 12; Coutinho 7; Mané 6; Oxlade-Chamberlain 3; Can, Sturridge 2; Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, Klavan, Lovren, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
West Ham: Arnautovic, Chicharito 7; Ayew, Lanzini, Noble 3; Carroll, Kouyate, Obiang, Sakho 2; Antonio, Collins, Ogbonna 1

Referee: Stuart Attwell (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Karius
Trent A-A Lovren van Dijk Robertson
Can Henderson Wijnaldum
Salah Firmino Mané

I don't know why, but I always worry about the response after a long layoff. Especially when the match before said layoff was so emphatic.

I probably shouldn't! By all accounts, the camp at Marbella was a rousing success, both in training and team-building. Players have had time to recover from fixture overload and injury – even Nat Clyne's back in training! – and Liverpool have almost a full squad to pick from. It's not like the layoff for international breaks, with the majority of the first team away with their countries.

But I can't help myself. When things are going well, I still expect the other shoe to drop. And it'd be a very bad time for it to do so. The end-of-the-season run starts now. There are 11 league games to play, plus whatever's left in Europe. And there are four points separating second place from fifth.

It starts with West Ham, a team that'd given Liverpool problems until last April, with Liverpool winless in five attempts before victories in their last two meetings while scoring four in each. It starts against David Moyes, who has never managed a side to victory at Anfield in 14 previous attempts.

And if Liverpool win tomorrow, Liverpool will go second, at least until Sunday – when currently second place United host currently fourth place Chelsea.

I doubt we'll see the 4-4-2 used away at West Ham last November, so the lineup questions are the same as always. Gomez or Alexander-Arnold at full-back, Lovren or Matip partnering van Dijk, which of the three start in midfield. I suspect it'll be almost exactly what we'd consider "full strength" tomorrow, whatever that means. There's another week between matches after this – another at Anfield – before the second leg at Porto and what appear to be more difficult league fixtures.

"More difficult" is always a relative term, though.

West Ham are seventh in the form table, with just one loss in their last eight league matches, a 1-3 defeat at Brighton at the beginning of the month.

More meaningfully, since Moyes took over – directly after Liverpool whomped West Ham at London Stadium – West Ham have been actually good against top opposition: one-goal losses at City and Arsenal (in the League Cup), draws against Arsenal and at Tottenham, and a win against Chelsea. Only City's scored twice in those matches.

If nothing else, David Moyes knows how to kill a football game, even if his previous sides have struggled to do so at Anfield. And the opposition attempting to kill football games has gone both well and badly for teams at Anfield. We've seen more than a few healthy 3-0 and 5-0 victories, but we've also seen 1-1 Everton and 0-0 West Brom.

Like Liverpool, West Ham have had time to recover since their last match – nearly two weeks since a 2-0 home win over Watford. Absentees remain an issue, but it's starting to alleviate. Lanzini and Reid should be back, but Carroll, Obiang, and Edimilson are out, Masuaku's suspended, and Jose Fonte's about to move to China.

They'll almost certainly play 3-4-3/3-4-2-1. I'll guess Adrian; Collins, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Zabaleta, Kouyate, Noble, Antonio; Lanzini, Chicharito, Arnautovic – almost exactly the XI which beat Watford but with Lanzini back in the side. But Joao Mario could start, in midfield or the front three. Reid could come into defense, in place of Collins or with Cresswell moving to wing-back. Patrice Evra could somehow be involved, having signed as a free agent last month.

So, yeah, this feels like an ambush, a potential let-down. It has been in previous seasons. It has been earlier this season – "hey, we just beat City, what's Swansea gonna do?"

A side coming off a record European win. A side still coming together both up front and at the back, even considering the heights already hit this season. No injury concerns. 11 games to play in the league, plus whatever's left in Europe.

Time to go, Liverpool.

15 February 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 5-0 Porto

Previous Match Infographics: Southampton (a), Tottenham (h), Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), Leicester (a), Swansea (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (a), West Brom (h), 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.)

Sometimes this season, Europe hasn't known what's hit it.

When Liverpool met Hoffenheim in the first leg of the Champions League playoff qualifiers, the German side hadn't lost at home in more than a year, unbeaten in 17 matches. Liverpool won 2-1, to set themselves up for a 4-2 second leg win and the competition proper.

Porto hadn't lost at home in their previous 15 matches, with 13 wins and two 0-0 draws. And Liverpool just did that. Porto had never been so thoroughly beaten in European competition; they'd never conceded more than three in a European match at home. I can find full results going back to 1994-95; Porto hadn't conceded five at home in any match in any competition until yesterday.

There are also the two 7-0 victories in the group stage, both home and away, against the best team in Slovenia and last season's Russian champions.

Teams are becoming – have become – scared of what Liverpool can do to them. And rightfully so. It's not something the majority of them are used to in their domestic leagues.

It, unsurprisingly, starts with Liverpool's attack.

Liverpool's non-penalty Expected Goals tally in the Champions League so far is just shy of 25. Liverpool have scored 32 non-penalty goals. Sure, that over-performance is almost solely down to three matches – 7-0 Maribor, 7-0 Spartak, and 5-0 Porto – but it's also symptomatic of Liverpool in Europe so far this season. When Liverpool are on, Liverpool are really, really on.

Maybe it's easier for Liverpool in Europe – although that's not necessarily the right word – because teams aren't as familiar with Liverpool's ferocity. Even Sevilla were all but hammered in both meetings, only for Liverpool to allow very very bad comebacks in both matches, while the 1-1 at Spartak is even more baffling every time you think about it. Maybe it's further proof that on their day, in one-off matches – as they've done in the league against Arsenal (h), West Ham (a), Bournemouth (a), City (h), and others – Liverpool can be really, really potent and thus really, really good.

Either way, Liverpool's attack sure is something. Liverpool's attack is the foundation upon which this house is built.

Today is February 15th. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mané have scored a combined 63 goals. In 39 games. 63 of 99 goals in total, almost two-thirds of Liverpool's season-long output.

Mané, Firmino, and Salah have all scored in five different matches this season: Watford (a), Arsenal (h), Spartak (h), City (h), and now Porto (a). And two of those three players have scored in ten more matches.

Sadio Mané is the first Liverpool player to score a hat-trick in the Champions League knockout round, with five other Liverpool hat-tricks coming in either the qualifying rounds or group stage. Two of Liverpool's six Champions League hat-tricks have come this season – the other in the previous Champions League match, from the player-who-shall-not-be-named. It has been more than 33 years since Liverpool players scored hat-tricks in consecutive European matches: John Wark and Ian Rush, in October 1984.

Not to take absolutely anything away, but, yes, Liverpool needed more than a little luck. As always seems to be the case, whether for Liverpool or their opponents.

Liverpool's opener came from a goalkeeping error that'd see us hang Mignolet or Karius from their toes outside the Shankly Gates had either done similar.

Liverpool's first three goals came from shot rebounds: Wijnaldum following up his blocked effort before finding Mané, Salah first to Milner's strike off the post, and Mané quickest after Jose Sa stopped Firmino's blast.

Liverpool's second, third, and fourth goals came from stealing possession back from Porto: Milner in the final third, robbing Marega for the second; Milner in his defensive third, stopping Brahimi for the third; and Mané on the halfway line, outmuscling Corona for the fourth. You could even count the first if so inclined, with Lovren stepping into the opposition half to intercept Jose Sa's throw before setting up Wijnaldum.

Each of Liverpool's goals took around ten seconds from winning possession to ball in the net. Nine for the first, nine for the second, 11 for the third (starting just outside Liverpool's own box), nine for the fourth, and nine for the fifth.

But when you score five, and hold the opposition to none, there's more than luck involved.

That both Wijnaldum and Milner feature in the above couple of paragraphs is a massive positive. The first two goals, featuring the more-advanced midfielders breaking into the box before getting a shot off. Constant switching between the two, changing the angles of attack as well as supplementing the full-backs when defense was needed.




Special mention to Milner, who's somehow responsible for six assists in the Champions League this season – seven if you want to give him rightful credit for the own goal at Hoffenheim.

And some credit needs to go to Liverpool's defense. Virgil van Dijk, again the necessary organizing presence at the back, leading the side in both interceptions and clearances, plus a handful of pinpoint long passes to release Liverpool's attack early. Dejan Lovren, surprisingly steady, with two crucial blocks, especially the early one to deflect Otavio's shot over the bar. And Andy Robertson, bombing up and down and up and down Liverpool's left flank.

I was most impressed with how Liverpool kept the incredibly dangerous Brahimi and Telles quiet. In the league and Europe, Alex Telles has a goal and ten assists. Yacine Brahimi has six goals and seven assists. They are, by far, Porto's more creative players, from both open play and set plays.

They created just one chance yesterday. Sure, it was Porto's best chance, Brahimi's throughball pushed narrowly wide by Tiquinho just before halftime, but still. One chance, from a left flank which has averaged five per 90 in the league this season.

Granted, after Porto's early attempt to take the game to Liverpool, Salah's absolutely terrifying pace forced Telles to play deeper than he's used to, with Brahimi also needed in tracking back. It's another example of how Liverpool's superlative attack can and often does relief pressure on Liverpool's defense. Nonetheless, Trent Alexander-Arnold is 19, and this is the first time he's started three consecutive matches for Liverpool. Both Wijnaldum and Milner – especially the latter - tracked back on both sides of the pitch to help. And Dejan Lovren, more comfortable on the right and more comfortable with van Dijk, certainly helped as well.

This was the joint-largest margin of victory away from home in a Champions League knockout match, along with Bayern at Sporting Lisbon in 2009 and Real Madrid at Schalke in 2014 by the same scoreline.

Since 2001-02, the first Champions League with a group stage then knockout round format that Liverpool participated in, Liverpool have never scored five goals in a knockout round match. They've played 28 Champions League knockout matches. Liverpool have scored four three times, twice against English opposition – Arsenal in 2007-08 and Chelsea in 2008-09 – and once against Real Madrid. They've scored three on four other occasions times: Leverkusen (twice), AC Milan, and PSV Eindhoven.

Liverpool have scored five or more goals in the European Cup/Champions League – at any stage – 15 times in 190 matches. Three of them have come this season.

That performance and result was historic. There's no other way to put it. Not to take anything for granted – never take anything for granted with this club – but Liverpool are now all but in the last eight of the Champions League.

But, of course, they still have to show up for the return leg in three weeks. And this performance, this result, won't mean anywhere near as much as it should if Liverpool don't continue on against West Ham in nine days.

13 February 2018

Liverpool at Porto 02.14.18

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

Group Stage results:
Liverpool: 7-0 Spartak (h); 3-3 Sevilla (a); 3-0 Maribor (h); 7-0 Maribor (a); 1-1 Spartak (a); 2-2 Sevilla (h)
Porto: 5-2 Monaco (h); 1-1 Besiktas (a); 3-1 RB Leipzig (h); 2-3 RB Leipzig (a); 3-0 Monaco (a); 1-3 Besiktas (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Southampton (a); 2-2 Tottenham (h); 3-0 Huddersfield (a)
Porto: 4-0 Chaves (a); 1-0 Sporting (h); 3-1 Braga (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Firmino 7; Salah 6; Coutinho 5; Can, Mané 3; Alexander-Arnold 2; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sturridge 1
Porto: Aboubakar 5; Brahimi, Danilo, Felipe, Herrera, Layon, Marcano, M Pereira, Telles, Tiquinho 1

Referee: Daniele Orsato (ITA))

Orsato also had the home leg of the Champions League playoff against Hoffenheim.

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

3,227 days.

That's how long it's been since Liverpool were in a Champions League knockout match.

4-4 at Chelsea, an utterly furious, bonkers encounter where Liverpool almost, somehow, but finally didn't overhaul a 1-3 first leg deficit.

That was almost nine years. Four managers ago. Unsurprisingly, there's not a single player left in that season's side, not since Lucas Leiva went to Lazio. Five of Liverpool's starting XI – including three of the four scorers – have since retired from football.

It has been way too long.

Karius should and hopefully will keep his place in goal, it'll be Matip or Lovren to partner van Dijk. Maybe Moreno comes in from Robertson, but I doubt an away European knockout round is when he makes his return to the XI, not with 10 days following this match until the next. And while Joe Gomez is included in the squad, he's seemingly in a similar position, a shorter injury layoff but also having just returned to training.

And, as usual, there are questions about the midfield composition. Emre Can's suspended, so we're down four midfielders for three places. Or, really, two from three, as Jordan Henderson's certain to start. Will he be joined by Milner, Wijnaldum, or Oxlade-Chamberlain? Probably the first two, with Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench if needed either in the front three or midfield, the most versatile sub of those midfielders. As happened against Tottenham. But I wouldn't be surprised by any of them starting.

At least we're sure what the front three will look like.

Meanwhile, Porto. Top of the Portuguese League. Unbeaten in the Portuguese League. They've won ten and drawn just one at the Estadio do Dragao, with six clean sheets.

There are a few names in the Porto squad that American soccer fans will recognize: Hector Herrera, Jesus Corona, and Diego Reyes. All three feature for the Mexican national team, at least two will start tomorrow. Porto made – and still make – use of value from the Brazilian market, and now they're doing it with Mexico.

As for the others. Danilo's definitely out injured, but more players are listed as questionable: Aboubakar up front, Andre Andre in midfield, Marcano in defense. Center-back is Porto's biggest concern; if Marcano's unable to start, with Felipe also suspended, it'll have to be Yordan Osorio partnering Reyes, a January signing yet to feature for the club.

But it's the Champions League and I've no real clue so let's guess everyone's available. That should lead to an XI of Jose Sa; Ricardo Pereira, Marcano, Reyes, Telles; Corona, Herrera, Sergio Oliveira, Brahimi; Marega, Aboubakar. That left flank is terrifying, with Brahimi behind only Aboubakar and Marega in goals, and with Telles and Brahimi Porto's top two assist creators. It'll be a massive test for either Alexander-Arnold or Gomez, and whomever plays on the right side of midfield, because Liverpool do not need Mo Salah having to track back all match.

If Aboubakar can't go, it'll be Triquinho, and if Andre Andre's available, maybe we'll see a diamond midfield rather than a more orthodox 4-4-2, as in the last group stage game against Monaco.

With the first leg away from home, against compact, resilient, difficult opposition, I'm tempted to think we'll see what Liverpool tried to do against Villarreal in the 2015-16 Europa League semifinal. A surprisingly defensive Liverpool, reliant on the counter and preserving the second leg home advantage. It didn't quite work, with Villarreal finally scoring late late late on, but it ultimately worked with a 3-0 second leg win.

I'm also tempted to think that'd be a mistake. For all of "Porto are tough to beat," Porto win games with their goals, and finished second in their group because of big wins over Monaco (twice) and Leipzig, scoring three, three, and five in those matches. And we know what Liverpool are capable of when sitting back and hoping for the counter. Sometimes we get Sunday's Southampton game. Sometimes we get the second half against Tottenham.

We saw similar to that Villarreal match in Liverpool Champions League qualifier at Hoffenheim. Liverpool won 2-1, Hoffenheim had all the possession, and it worked, but Liverpool needed a phenomenal free kick from Alexander-Arnold and an own goal, and for Hoffenheim to fail to convert three clear-cut chances – including a saved penalty – before they finally got a consolation late on. And, like against Villarreal, it was moot after the second leg with a riotous home performance.

But it's worrisome. And it's not where Liverpool are usually at its best.

It's been too long since Liverpool were in this position. So do what got you here. Do Liverpool.

12 February 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Southampton

Previous Match Infographics: Tottenham (h), Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), Leicester (a), Swansea (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (a), West Brom (h), 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. 



I don't get to write, "yep, a routine away win" often enough. Score early, don't let them score, get another, kill the game. Not the heights hit in a couple of the more furious top-six battles or more thorough bottom half victories, but it's still a lovely template, and one I'd be fine seeing every time out.

So, I'm happy to focus on two things.

First, I see you, Roberto Firmino.




That Firmino is one of the hardest-working players in world football is no surprise. The above StatsZone chalkboard is more illustrative, but I still can't get over his basic touches map.



He was everywhere, attempting as many tackles as Alexander-Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson, and Can combined. Joint-second in shots taken, joint-top in chances created. And, even more than previous seasons, he's added the necessary finishing. The opening goal, taken with his weaker foot – his 20th of the season. And that assist. Oh lord, that assist.

Nine assists in his first season. Seven in his second. Now, 11 in his third. 11 goals in his first season. 12 in his second. 20 in his third – only three behind his first two seasons combined. And it's February 12.

Mohamed Salah's unsurprisingly received the majority of the attacking praise so far this season. And rightfully so! He's been amazing!



But not enough's been said about Firmino's improvement this season. How crucial he is to Salah's stardom, how crucial he is to both Liverpool's attack and Liverpool's pressing defense. And this display – this all-around display – was archetypal of it.

Second, even with Liverpool's relative comfort in the end, we had a bit of a fright there in the first half, yeah?



All four of Southampton's shots on-target came between Liverpool's first and second goals, from the 18th to the 40th minutes. All four came from open play, rather than the set plays which often scare us. All four came from crosses, although Højbjerg from Romeu's pass isn't technically a cross by Opta's definition because Romeu was infield.

The first two chances saw Liverpool's full-backs lose aerial duels; Alexander-Arnold is 5'9" and Robertson is 5'10" and it doesn't get better in reserve, with Moreno 5'7" and Clyne 5'9" and that's why 6'2" Joe Gomez is often used at fullback. The latter two chances saw Ward-Prowse wide open for headers after Southampton sprung an overlap for an open cross down Liverpool's right, with additional Southampton attackers in the box upsetting Liverpool's marking structure.

Southampton's first shot on-target was the most difficult, and was a clear-cut chance. Liverpool, notably, have conceded from the first shot on-target against Watford (a), Sevilla (h), Burnley (h), Spartak (a), Tottenham (a), West Ham (a), Arsenal (a), Leicester (h), and Swansea (a).

But Loris Karius saved all four shots on-target, the first his best save, the third a fairly difficult stop, and the other two routine. Which should be the baseline performance for a starting Top-6 goalkeeper, but any port in a storm, etc.

And Southampton didn't get those opportunities after Liverpool's second goal, after halftime.









Southampton completed two crosses in the second half: Ward-Prowse for Hoedt's near post set play chance – and I'm still not sure how that's gone down as a clear-cut chance – and Cedric quick from a throw-in, with Liverpool players back and van Dijk first to the second ball to clear, the cross not resulting in a shot.

Southampton tiring after their first-half exertions certainly had something to do with this. As did Liverpool's second goal, extending the lead so that Liverpool could play even more compactly in their own half. But Liverpool also adjusted to the problems that Southampton caused in the first half, and ensured they didn't give the home side those opportunities in the second half. It was exactly the type of in-game adjustment we sometimes worry that the side will make. And it was exactly the type of second half control that we didn't see against Tottenham – who, admittedly, are vastly better opponents – a week ago.

So, yeah, a couple of moments of extreme brilliance in attack from Firmino and Salah, and an indefatigable all-around performance from Firmino. And a strong defensive performance, first from Karius, then from the unit as a whole.

More meaningfully, no nerves, from the most nerve-wracking side in the league, at both ends of the pitch.

Football is often best when football's fun and death-defying and cardiac arrests, and Liverpool will undoubtedly return to those ways in the future, but I'll happily take comfortable, calm, and routine once in a while.

11 February 2018

Liverpool 2-0 Southampton

Goals:
Firmino 6'
Salah 42'

Liverpool are incredibly reliant on Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. And that's okay, and long as they're available and they keep this up. Yes, I realize that "as long as" is doing an awful lot of work in that sentence.

That's not to downplay Liverpool's nine other starters or the substitutes – who ranged mostly from "fine" to van Dijk's "good" and Karius' "encouragingly good", but good lord. Salah's got 29 goals and eight assists in all competitions this season. Firmino's got 20 goals and 11 assists. No Liverpool player's scored 20 in a season since Suarez and Sturridge in 2013-14. They've finally got two this season, and it's only February 11.

Firmino and Salah have scored ten of Liverpool's last 13 goals – all the matches since Coutinho's departure. Four of Salah's eight assists this season have been to Firmino. Five of Firmino's ten assists have been to Salah.

And they did it again today.

Sixth minute. Karius early throw out from goal. Oxlade-Chamberlain run, early pass, through Hoedt. Salah control, Salah cleverly centered pass in traffic. Firmino first-time weaker-foot finish.

42nd minute. A bit of sustained possession, something which didn't happen often in the first half, after an attempted counter broke down. Matip into Salah's feet, back to goal. Turn, then to Firmino, who plays a jaw-dropping back heel, with Salah continuing his run, wide open to easily place his shot around McCarthy.

The first goal was both lucky and good; for all from Firmino and Salah, as well as Karius and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Hoedt could and really should have intercepted Oxlade-Chamberlain's pass forward. The second goal was beyond phenomenal. Southampton had three players between Firmino and Salah, and two more defenders at the top of the penalty box. An immediate back heel was the only way Liverpool were getting through, and it still had to be hit to inch-perfection and Salah still had to make the run exactly into the only open space without pausing. Two world-class attackers whose actions played out exactly as they saw them in their heads, whose interplay has been superlative all season long. And, sometimes, they make it look so, so easy.

But in between, it wasn't that fun of a first half. Other than the goals, it wasn't that fun of a first half.

Southampton, after failing to put a shot on-target in their last three league matches against Liverpool, actually threatened. Often. Lemina and Romeu were all over midfield. Both Bertrand and Soares got forward to help pin back Robertson and Alexander-Arnold. And Liverpool needed Loris Karius to make four first-half saves, including a clear-cut chance from Højbjerg and three headers. Southampton made good use of cross-field switches, Southampton took advantage of Liverpool's short full-backs with crosses.

Southampton are the first non-top six side to out-possess Liverpool in the first half of a league match since April 2016, a 2-1 win at Bournemouth. And that's the only other time it's happened since Klopp became manager.

Liverpool seemed content to play for counter-attacks after taking an early lead. That has, um, not gone especially well sometimes.

But Southampton's lack of scoring has hurt them all season, and it hurt them today. If for better finishing and if not for Loris Karius, this could have been a different, much closer game.

At least in the first half. The second half was an entirely different story.

Liverpool missed an absolute pile of chances in the second half – which always and rightfully makes us nervous – but Southampton's last shot came in the 59th minute, from Hoedt's no-angle set play attempt. That was their only shot of the second half. Their last open play shot came in the 40th minute, not long before Salah's goal. Their last non-headed, open play shot came in the 18th minute – Højbjerg's clear-cut chance.

For all the rightful concerns we have about Liverpool with the lead, for all the possession and threat Southampton carried early in the match, that was absolutely finished as a contest as soon as Mohamed Salah scored Liverpool's second. Southampton tired, Lemina had to go off through illness, and the only reason that this didn't finish 3-0 like the reverse fixture, or 4-0 or 5-0, was that Salah, Mané, Firmino, and Lallana all couldn't convert chances we've seen them convert multiple times, whether put off-target, blocked, or saved by McCarthy.

This, notably, is Liverpool's first 2-0 win of the season. It's Liverpool's first 2-0 win in exactly a year. It's Liverpool first 2-0 win away from home in the league since Klopp became manager; Liverpool have played 95 league matches since.

We'd hoped we'd get similar to the 3-0 at Huddersfield 11 days ago. And despite a few differences – Southampton's first half threat, a failure to get a third goal – we pretty much did. Liverpool scored multiple first-half goals, including the crucial second just before the interval, and then Liverpool willed the opposition into submission.

What was, because of those goals and because of that will, a comfortable away win in the end. Not the toughest competition, but still a situation we'd seen Liverpool disappoint in before. What was, necessarily, another win, by any means necessary – Liverpool's sixth in the last eight league matches. A win which puts Liverpool two points behind second place and two points ahead of fourth, before a crucial Champions League match at Porto on Wednesday.

10 February 2018

Liverpool at Southampton 02.11.18

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.18.17
0-0 (h) 05.07.17
0-1 Southampton (h; League Cup) 01.25.17
0-1 Southampton (a; League Cup) 01.11.17

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Tottenham (h); 3-0 Huddersfield (a); 2-3 West Brom (h)
Southampton: 3-2 West Brom (a); 1-1 Brighton (h); 1-0 Watford (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Salah 21; Firmino 11; Coutinho 7; Mané 6; Oxlade-Chamberlain 3; Can, Sturridge 2; Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, Klavan, Lovren, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Tottenham: Austin 6; Davis, Gabbiadini, Tadic, Ward-Prowse 3; Boufal, Stephens, Yoshida 2; Lemina, Long, Romeu 1

Referee: Michael Oliver (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Karius
Trent A-A Matip van Dijk Robertson
Alex O-C Can Wijnaldum
Salah Firmino Mané

Let's start with the defense. Which wasn't actually that bad last week!

Both Klavan and Moreno are back, but I highly doubt either will start. Gomez remains injured, so it has to be Alexander-Arnold at right-back.

It is probably dangerous to play both Lovren and van Dijk away at Southampton. Especially Lovren, who had to be hauled off on the trip there in 2015-16, although he was a lot better – in a far less attacking Southampton performance – last season. But Lovren and van Dijk actually looked a decent pairing last weekend. Yes, even considering that each made a mistake leading to one of Tottenham's still-incredibly-soft penalties. But I still suspect we'll get Matip and van Dijk.

Of course, at least one more former Saint will be involved in Sadio Mané, although Lallana will only be fit enough for the bench. Mané, Firmino, and Salah will be the front three, again, rotation prior to Porto almost certainly be damned.

And then there's the midfield. If possible, Jordan Henderson will probably be rested, which probably means a midfield of Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Wijnaldum given that Milner's started the previous two; he's only started three or more consecutive matches once this season. Plus, Can's suspended for the first leg against Porto due to yellow card accumulation, so Henderson has to start in that match.

The "pressing-running midfield," which the above seems to be, wouldn't be my choice for a match where Liverpool will run up against a deep defense – this is what I would've started against Tottenham, and the Tottenham midfield in this – but this is where we are rotation- and fitness-wise and Klopp assuredly knows more than I do. Also, Oxlade-Chamberlain starting would give us three ex-Southampton players in the starting XI. It's hilarious that three seems the minimum, and that we could get up to five.

Maybe we'll get the 4-2-2-2/4-4-2 formation we saw in some of the away matches against deep defenses a few ago – basically the same front six as above, but with Salah central and Mané and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks, but it has been a while seen we've seen similar. I wouldn't be opposed, mind.

Meanwhile, Southampton, in 15th and only two points above the relegation places, have actually been *better* lately. They're unbeaten since January 2, with three wins and three draws since. All three wins were by a solitary goal, although two were in the FA Cup. The three draws came at Watford, against Tottenham (ugh), and against Brighton. So, yeah, aside from Tottenham, it's not been a murderer's row. But they've still been far better results than what Southampton were on the last time these sides spoke.

And it's also not as if form counts for all that much when facing Liverpool *glares at West Brom, Swansea*. At least it counts for a little more than previous seasons?

With top scorer Charlie Auston still out injured – and he's Southampton's only missing player – my best guess is the same XI which won 3-2 at West Brom last week. McCarthy; Soares, Stephens, Hoedt, Bertrand; Romeu, Lemina; Ward-Prowse, Tadic, Boufal; Carrillo.

Maybe Long up front, maybe Davis or Højbjerg as a more defensive #10, maybe Redmond on the flank. But, otherwise, Southampton's been fairly consistent with their XIs, and almost always in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

It will be a slightly different side that the one Liverpool faced in November. Guido Carrillo was Southampton's big winter signing from Monaco for about a quarter of the van Dijk money. Alex McCarthy has rightly taken over for Frasier Forster in goal. Lemina's become almost ever-present in midfield, and, obviously van Dijk plays for a different team now.

But they will still be Southampton. Not quite as secure defensively as in recent seasons, but getting better. About league average in both xG For and Against, and slightly underperforming both. They – like numerous other sides – will almost certainly attempt to restrict Liverpool in their half and hope for an opportunity or two on the counter or set plays.

Liverpool dealt with it well last time, for the first time against Southampton after five consecutive disappointments and four consecutive meetings without scoring. Salah scored twice in the first half, and all of the front five were heavily involved in the attack. Including – sigh, gulp – a goal and assist from Philippe Coutinho.

But, yes, we haven't truly seen a comprehensive attacking performance since Coutinho's exit; it's hard to count a ten minute burst against Manchester City given how they attempted to play Liverpool. We've seen two goals against Leicester, Burnley, Everton, West Brom, and Tottenham – three in a row finishing 2-1, all three narrow and worrisome, then 2-3 and 2-2 – no goals at Swansea, and three at Huddersfield.

Huddersfield is hopefully the template. The template to be surpassed. Liverpool were not at their most prolific. Huddersfield sat deeper and had less ambition than almost any side Liverpool have faced this season, and almost certainly less than Southampton will show tomorrow. But Liverpool worked and scored and scored again and scored again and held the opposition to absolutely nothing and were comfortable by halftime.

And Liverpool need a result. Liverpool need a win, ideally a 3-0 cruise as against Huddersfield. Not only for top four, tightened again today with Tottenham's win over Arsenal but also to set the side in good side for Wednesday's trip to Porto. We're in the meat of the season now. The tipping point. And Liverpool need to smash their way through it.

05 February 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: Huddersfield (a), Swansea (a), Manchester City (h), Everton (h), Burnley (a), Leicester (a), Swansea (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (a), West Brom (h), 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. 



This match saw Liverpool's fewest shots at Anfield since taking just seven in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea just over a year ago. This was the first time Liverpool have been out-shot at Anfield since a 2-1 win over Burnley last March. Klopp's Liverpool have been out-shot at Anfield in the league just five times: 1-1 Tottenham in April 2016, 1-0 City in December 2016, 1-1 Chelsea in January 2017, 2-1 Burnley in March 2017, and yesterday.

This was Liverpool's lowest passing accuracy in a Premier League match under Jürgen Klopp.



The only Premier League match that saw less Liverpool possession since Klopp became manager was the 0-5 loss at City, where Liverpool played with ten men for an hour.

And they would've gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids.

There's little point relitigating the penalties. Just have a look at all the ex-referees saying contradictory things in their featured columns today. Unsurprisingly, I remain furious.

But it's not as if Liverpool truly deserved to win that match, for what little "deserved" actually means. Aside from Mohamed Salah's continued, unbelievable brilliance.

Aside from Salah's two moments of brilliance – very much especially the second – Liverpool's attack was not good. The aforementioned paucity of shots. Just one on-target shot that didn't result in a goal: Van Dijk's easily-saved header in the 34th minute. Just one shot from Firmino, none from Mané, no key passes from either Mané or Firmino. Salah with three successful dribbles from seven attempted, Firmino with two from four, Mané with one from two. Firmino lost possession nine times – almost double his average for the season – and Salah seven times.

There's little to criticize in their work rate – as usual – but on the ball, all three were off-form. And that's a big reason why Liverpool were never able to extend its lead, especially when clearly the better side in the first half.

But I really want to blame Liverpool's midfield for the lack of creativity and the lack of control, especially as the match went on.

The intention seemed to be the same as against Manchester City. Push, press, counter. But I remain uncertain why Liverpool used Henderson, Can, and Milner in midfield, especially when Liverpool's midfield against City included Can, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Wijnaldum. The latter two are faster, more mobile, and better at pressing – even if Wijnaldum has been below form for the majority of the season.

But it worked for a while!

Tottenham were truly unsettled in the first half. Tottenham truly struggled to move the ball forward. Liverpool won nine tackles in Tottenham's half: three by Firmino, two by Henderson, one each by Robertson, Milner, Can, and Mane, The last came in the 51st minute. But, then again, Liverpool's last successful tackle of the match came in the 57th minute.

And at the same time, Liverpool's starting midfield played just one key pass: Milner's set play cross for van Dijk's on-target header in the 34th minute. But, then again, Liverpool played just four key passes all match. Incidentally, none of the four goals in yesterday's match came from an assist.

Against Manchester City, Oxlade-Chamberlain played three key passes, including an assist, while Can and Wijnaldum each had one. But, then again, both Oxlade-Chamberlain – played higher up the pitch – and Wijnaldum were actually bad after coming on from the bench.

I'm still not entirely sure why Liverpool sat back for the majority of the second half, seemingly by design. Yes, yes, counter-attacks, but Liverpool certainly did not sit back against Manchester City until going 4-1 up. And we all remember what happened from there.

The defense was good – including Karius saving three clear-cut chances! – until it wasn't. A quasi-mistake from Lovren, much more of a mistake from van Dijk. The midfield was good – or at least good enough – until it wasn't. The attack wasn't as good as it can be, by a long shot, but Mo Salah still scored two wonderful goals and two goals really should be enough, except it rarely is.

And, so, another Liverpool match ends in dropped points despite Liverpool having a lead.



It's happened six times in the league this season. That's 12 points. Don't look at the table. Liverpool conceded after the 75th minute in four of those six league matches, including twice yesterday.

Watford's late equalizer was offside. Newcastle's equalizer came from a ricochet off their striker from Matip's attempted clearance. Chelsea's equalizer was Willian attempting to cross. Everton's equalizer was a soft penalty. Arsenal's equalizer was Mignolet massively screwing up Xhaka's shot from nowhere. And Tottenham's two equalizers were Wanyama's hapax legomenon shot from nowhere and a soft penalty (with Lamela marginally offside in the build-up).

This sport remains incredibly stupid.



Liverpool, with away matches still to come against Chelsea, United, and Everton, are nine points worse in matches against last season's top seven than they were in 2016-17.

And yet, Liverpool are three points better when comparing all the fixtures played so far versus 2016-17.

And yet, Liverpool remain in third, two points ahead of Tottenham, albeit with Chelsea playing Watford later today. Liverpool remain favored to finish in the top four.

But it's closer than it should be. And this is yet another example of how much more this season could have been.