31 August 2013

Liverpool v Manchester United 09.01.13

8:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 United (a) 01.13.13
1-2 United (h) 09.23.12
1-2 United (a) 02.11.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.28.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-2 Notts County (h); 1-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Stoke (h)
United: 0-0 Chelsea (h); 4-1 Swansea (a); 2-0 Wigan (n)

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Henderson Aspas Coutinho

Until proven otherwise, until Suarez returns from suspension, or unless Liverpool sign anyone in the next few days (*crosses fingers*), I have to assume that the XI we saw against both Stoke and Villa is Rodgers' first choice lineup.

Unfortunately, it appears there will be at least one forced change from that XI. Toure *may* be able to play, but unless Rodgers is 100% confident about his health, I doubt Kolo will be risked, even in a match of this importance. If he re-injures his groin playing before he's ready, he'll be out a lot longer than a few days, and the upcoming international break gives him ample time to rest. Yes, even if that means Martin Skrtel has to start. Gulp. Come on, Martin, for old time's sake.

There are a few other possibilities, although almost all of them seem likely to occur in the attacking line of three. Sterling could replace Aspas for speed and directness, with Henderson moving into the center for more midfield stability. Other Sterling could start on the left, with Coutinho as an out-and-out #10. Or, Henderson and Aspas could swap positions, again, for more protection in the center of the pitch. Personally, I'd be tempted to put Henderson in the middle, regardless of whether Aspas or Sterling starts, to try to overrun United's midfield at Anfield, but my suspicion is that Rodgers sticks with the devil he knows and seemingly prefers.

As in the last three matches this season, Sturridge will be the key man. He's scored 15 times in his 19 Liverpool games, scored Liverpool's lone goal off the bench (within 12 minutes of coming on) the last time these two sides met, and could become the first player since Fowler in 1994 to score in the first three matches of a league campaign.

Like Liverpool, I suspect we'll see the same lineup from United that we saw in their previous league match: De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Cleverley; Valencia, Rooney, Welbeck; van Persie. Rafael, Nani, Chicharito, and Fletcher are out for a few more weeks, if not longer in Fletcher's case. Phil Jones suffered a back injury against Chelsea but should be fit enough to reclaim the right-back spot, needed in Rafael's absence. Which might well be another reason to start Sterling on the left, although Coutinho charging at Jones is just as tantalizing.

Rooney definitely appears to be staying with United, so there's little reason to hold him out of the XI as against Swansea, while Kagawa or Giggs could come in for Welbeck, but those seem the only other likely alterations. As with Liverpool's striker, United's will also most likely be the crucial figure. Last season's top scorer in the league, Van Persie's responsible for four of United's six goals this season, finding the net in both matches against Liverpool in 2012-13.

Liverpool have kept a clean sheet in five of the last six and seven of the last nine league matches. But there hasn't been a clean sheet kept in one of these league fixtures since October 2009, eight meetings ago. Yes, David Moyes has still never won at Anfield, but winning at Anfield with United's squad is a far different proposition than winning with Everton's. We can only hope he shows the same tentative style that defined his tenure with that lot across the park.

27 August 2013

Liverpool 4-2 Notts County aet

Sterling 4'
Sturridge 29' 105+4'
Arquin 62'
Coombes 84'
Henderson 110'

Well that wasn't supposed to happen.

Sure, it started like it was supposed to. Sterling scored within four minutes: winning possession, dancing between defenders, rocketing a shot that Bialkowski couldn't keep out. Liverpool kept up the pressure, coming close a few times before adding a gorgeous second: neatly passed through the midfield triangle, Luis Alberto to Allen to Gerrard, before the captain's perfect throughball that Sturridge finished with aplomb. Two-nil in less than 30 minutes. Surely that's that. Kill the game, ease into Sunday.

Not quite. Three injuries – to Cissokho, Allen, and Toure – three shots off the woodwork, sloppily conceding a first on a set play (surprise!) then increasingly pushed back until conceding a second on a quick counter-attack (surprise!) with just seven minutes left to play.

Like the rest of us, Liverpool thought the match was won at halftime. That's the most unforgivable sin today. Although there were a few more sins along the way.

Liverpool never got complacent against Stoke or Villa. Sure, those were Premiership opponents, and Liverpool never had more than a 1-0 lead, but Liverpool fought tooth and nail for 90 minutes to ensure it stayed a 1-0 lead, at worst, even if Mignolet had to rescue terrifying moments in each match.

Today, against lower league opponents who'd won just one of five matches this season, Liverpool figured a two-goal lead was enough, most likely already thinking about United on Sunday. It goes without saying that's dangerous against any opponent.

Notts County threatened on a couple of corners not long before scoring their opener, a sign of things soon to come, after increasing pressure on Liverpool from the moment the match restarted. With Agger already on thanks to Cissokho's early ankle injury, it's not as if Liverpool's defense was radically different than usual. But set pieces remain a concern, a concern that doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. And on a 62nd-minute deep free kick, Smith was left wide open at the top of the box, heading on for Arquin, who'd drifted behind both Wisdom and Toure for a point-blank header. Sigh. To compound matters, Allen's hamstring injury came almost immediately after County's goal, requiring further changes.

Liverpool proceeded to waste chances for the needed third: Toure soon provided the third woodwork strike, the second time he's hit the goal frame this season, then Sturridge headed inches wide. Like against Stoke, like against Villa, with Liverpool hanging onto a one-goal lead in the final ten minutes, Liverpool were put under more pressure than they'd seen in the previous 80. Unlike against Stoke and Villa, Liverpool couldn't prevent an equalizer, as substitute Coombes scored with his first touch after County broke when Liverpool (read: Glen Johnson) lost possession in the opposition half, hammering in Arquin's cross with Liverpool's retreating defense in total disarray.

Conceding on a set play? Check. Conceding on a counter-attack? Check. Was at least one of them a header when a Liverpool player lost an aerial duel? Yep. Super. It's Liverpool Calamity Bingo.

Cue extra time. Cue all the horrific memories of Northampton which I spent so much time repressing with therapy and alcohol.

Except not this time. When Kolo Toure went down with a groin injury – most likely out for the longest of any of the three players who had to go off today – all hope appeared lost, with Liverpool needing to play the final 20 minutes with ten men. At best, Liverpool hold on for penalties, for Mignolet to save the day yet again. To the surprise of all of us pessimists, Mignolet wasn't even needed for those final 20 minutes, as Liverpool ruthlessly carved open Notts County twice in five minutes with quick, direct attacks.

First, Johnson blocked a speculative shot, with Gerrard picking up possession and feeding Coutinho, who raced 40 yards before playing a long throughball to Sturridge, running at Smith from the left channel before firing a shot at goal which Bialkowski really should have parried away. Instead, it crept under the keeper's hand, trickling over the line. On the other side of extra time halftime, Liverpool quickly restarted a free kick on the halfway line, Agger played a long, low pass for Sturridge, who immediately found the on-rushing Henderson, impressively nutmegging Liddle before shooting past Bialkowski from the top of the box. Both moves took less than 15 seconds from Liverpool's half to the ball in the back of the net.

Relief. Sweet, sweet relief.

Yes, it should have been a lot easier than Liverpool made it. The second half complacency is Rodgers' problem. The lack of depth is both Rodgers and FSG's problem. But as for lineup decisions, despite the three injuries, Rodgers was damned if he did and damned if he didn't, as in pretty much any cup match. Toure had to start because of injuries to Skrtel, Coates, and Kelly. Allen and Cissokho needed to start for match fitness. Cissokho's injury was a fluke, and I'd be surprised if he missed much time, but the muscle injuries for Allen and Toure are worrying, especially since neither is a position of strength for Liverpool.

In regards to individual performances, some impressed, some disappointed, which is often the case when you chop and change the lineup in the cups. Both Wisdom and Ibe played poorly, with the defender arguably at fault – at least jointly – for both goals. Which isn't entirely unexpected when you're playing kids in the League Cup. This is, after all, where they learn. Johnson also underwhelmed, especially on Notts County's second goal, in both attack and defense, which was far more surprising and annoying given both his experience and the fact that he's usually more defensively solid when deployed on the left.

On the other hand, Sturridge, Sterling, and Gerrard all played well, as did Henderson off the bench (especially in scoring the crucial fourth), Luis Alberto had some promising touches, mostly when dropping deep to knit play, but there are obviously more concerns than positives after that. Concerns about set plays, concerns about focus, concerns about squad depth after those three injuries. But at the very least, Liverpool again demonstrated the resiliency we've gloated over in the two Premiership wins, scoring two in extra time to advance to the next round despite being reduced to 10 men. That has to count for something.

Yes, everything's still the worst (© Liverpool Offside), especially with United to come, but really, it could be even more the worst.

26 August 2013

Liverpool v Notts County 08.27.13

2:45pm ET, live in the US on BeIN Sport

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 03.31.92
2-1 Liverpool (a) 09.07.91
0-0 (a) 05.12.84
5-0 Liverpool (h) 12.17.83

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Villa (a); 1-0 Stoke (h)
Notts County: 0-1 Stevenage (h); 1-1 Walsall (a); 2-4 Peterborough (h)

Referee: Stuart Attwell

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Toure Wisdom Cissokho
Henderson Allen
Aspas Alberto Sterling

There's no way I'm guessing this lineup correctly, given the number of directions Rodgers could choose to take. The deciding question, as usual in the cups, is how seriously will Rodgers take this match? Especially with Manchester United imminent.

The answer seems "pretty seriously" when Rodgers says things like:
"It will be an opportunity for some players, who haven't featured, to get a game. The core of our team will very much be there. If there's an opportunity to recover one or two players that maybe had little niggles, we'll look at that. But we'll have a strong side out."

If you're asking me, my lineup selection would start with two lists:

Players that need to play, if available: Allen, Sterling, Cissokho, Kelly, Wisdom.

Players that probably shouldn't be risked: Gerrard, Lucas, Agger, Sturridge, Coutinho.

But chances are at least one of the players listed in the "DON'T RISK" section starts, if not more. Even with United five days later, even after a tiring, hard-fought match on Saturday, Liverpool will probably take this competition more seriously than I'd like to assume, especially without participation in the Europa League. Memories of Oldham, not to mention Northampton, are still fairly fresh wounds.

Skrtel is reportedly suffering with a knock (my guess is I've-not-played-well-in-a-year-but-they-can't-sell-me-itis), which is why he's not included in the "needs to play" list. With Coates also absent, Rodgers' hands are pretty much tied at center-back. Wisdom is almost assuredly one of the two starters; Kelly could play there as well, with Johnson, Flanagan, or even McLaughlin at right back, but I suspect Rodgers won't want to use both Kelly and Wisdom in central defense. Which means Toure or Agger will play. Agger has a history of breaking easily, and was at his best last season with ample recovery time. He played in only four of the 12 Europa League matches and didn't appear in any of the four domestic cup matches last season. Let's not play Agger.

If any of the above five "DON'T RISK" players feature, it'll probably be Gerrard or Lucas in midfield. As in central defense, Rodgers doesn't really have a surplus of options in that area: Gerrard, Lucas, Allen, and Henderson. I'd be perfectly happy with the Henderson/Allen pairing, but I suspect Rodgers will start either Gerrard or Lucas with Allen.

And then there's the front four. Of the four who've started Liverpool's two league matches, I'd be most comfortable with Aspas playing, the only one who's been subbed out of both matches and who needs the experience of dealing with the more agricultural English style of play that lower league sides so helpfully provide. Sturridge is coming off an extended summer-long injury. Coutinho looked fatigued and below par on Saturday. Both Borini and Sterling, and Luis Alberto and Jordon Ibe to a lesser extent, need the match practice if they're to be relied on for any length of time during the league campaign. But, again, it wouldn't surprise me to see either Sturridge or Coutinho in the XI.

Notts County are winless through four League One matches, with three losses and a draw, after finishing mid-table last season. The Magpies beat League Two Fleetwood in the previous round to advance to this stage.

I won't embarrass us both by pretending to know anything about Notts County's projected lineup, players, or tactics. I recognize exactly three names in their squad: center-back and captain Dean Leacock, who played for Fulham and Derby for a number of seasons, including a few in the Premiership; striker Enoch Showunmi, who played for Leeds and Tranmere (and probably some others, I suppose); and Bartosz Bialkowski, who was Southampton's keeper for a few years until last season's promotion. Otherwise, I'm drawing a blank. Recent match reports suggest they'll play 4-4-2. I realize this is all a lot of help.

We're all well aware that these games have been tricky for Liverpool in the past, and that Liverpool struggled against the two lower league sides they faced last season (albeit in a different competition). No matter who starts tomorrow, Rodgers will want improvement in that area, and to continue the resilient, if not inspiring, start to the season. That, even with United on Sunday, are undoubtedly the priorities. Only time will tell whether that ends up being a good or bad thing.

Meta note: The match review won't be up until very late tomorrow night. I'll be around on Twitter to post inanities during the match, but have to be somewhere at 5pm, and completing a review before then is incredibly unlikely. This will be the first of a few weekday matches I'll most likely have to miss this season. Apologies in advance. Stupid real life.

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Quick update on the two new additions to the infographic for this season. If a number is in gold on the shot location and chance creation location charts, a goal came from that location.

The attacking stats, at least in shots and chances created, are the most one-sided in favor of Liverpool's opponent that I've seen in the slightly-more-a-season of doing these match infographics, and by some distance.

Liverpool took fewer than 10 shots in only one match last season: nine at Chelsea in November's 1-1 draw, with Chelsea taking 15. Liverpool hit the target with just one of Saturday's five shots – 20%; they managed a lesser percentage of shots on target in just three matches last season: 0-3 at West Brom, 2-2 against City, and 0-0 against Stoke. But Liverpool scored with that lone shot on target. And Liverpool won.

Every outfield Villa player except Fabian Delph either created a chance or took a shot, including the three substitutes. But only three of Villa's 17 shots were on-target: one was Tonev's long-range chance that was easily smothered, the other two fantastic saves from Mignolet on shots from Villa's most dangerous player. Nine were off-target, five were blocked, and all five of Villa's blocked shots came from outside the box. In fact, 12 of Aston Villa's 17 shots came from outside the box, which is an apt demonstration of how well Liverpool defended on the whole, forcing Villa to resort to low-percentage efforts. Liverpool's defensive shell worked more often than not, and the few times that it didn't, Villa missed their chances or Mignolet came up with the trump card.

Just a glance at Liverpool's passes from the first to the second half is enough to show how the match seesawed after the restart. There wasn't as much discrepancy in Villa's half to half totals, but, unsurprisingly, more of Villa's passes came in dangerous positions in the second half. Liverpool had much, more defending to do in the final 45 minutes, pushed deeper and deeper into its own half – as if we were watching Hodgson's sides at their best (gasp shock horror) – but they mostly succeeded. And when they didn't succeed, there was Simon Mignolet.

Especially impressive was how quiet Liverpool kept Christian Benteke given his start to the season – again, aside from the two dynamic saves from Liverpool's keeper.

Liverpool actually won the majority of Saturday's aerial duels, albeit by a small majority (16 of the 30 contested), but that certainly wasn't the case when Villa beat Liverpool 1-3 at Anfield, when they won 16 of 26, with Benteke responsible for 10 of those aerial wins. And of the duels inside their own half on Saturday, Liverpool won 12 of 18 – 66.7%. Maybe Liverpool aren't as bad in the air as we feared.

Benteke only won five of his 12 aerial duels on Saturday, a far cry from 12 of 22 against Chelsea and 14 of 23 against Arsenal. Agger won 3 of 5, Toure 2 of 3, but most pleasantly surprising was Glen Johnson, who won 6 of 10. Benteke drifted onto the fullback to excellent effect against both Arsenal and Chelsea, but Johnson did a vastly better job nullifying that strategy on Saturday.

By conceding possession in the second half, Liverpool coaxed Villa away from doing what they do best: the long ball counter-attack, forcing them to cut through a packed defense, a thankless chore that Liverpool are all too familiar with. It was admittedly a dangerous strategy; had Mignolet not denied Benteke's 86th minute strike, had Agbonlahor not fired wide when Liverpool failed to clear in the 75th, had Villa taken one of there other numerous lesser chances, we're criticizing Liverpool's failings and Rodgers' surprisingly defensive tactics.

We're not criticizing Liverpool's failings or Rodgers' tactics today.

24 August 2013

Liverpool 1-0 Aston Villa

Sturridge 21'

Winning ugly is much, much better than losing or drawing prettily. We've had enough of that, thanks.

Look, that wasn't good. There was almost zero good aside from Liverpool's goal and Simon Mignolet. How many times has Liverpool been on the other end of that in the last few years?

The first 40 minutes were "good enough," keeping patient possession to ensure Villa didn't have the chance to rent Liverpool asunder on the counter, and getting men behind the ball when Villa took over. The final 50 minutes were "hold onto your butts, this is gonna be a rocky ride." But Liverpool held onto its butts. Barely, but their butts are still there.

Liverpool's starting game plan seemed the right one, even if it was a slight surprise to see the exact same XI and formation as against Stoke. We learned, to painful effect, how Villa can punish Liverpool's weaknesses: Liverpool's weaknesses in the air, Liverpool's weaknesses on the counter, Liverpool's weaknesses on set plays. For 40 minutes, Villa had zero chances to exploit those weaknesses. Sure, Liverpool created just four chances of their own, took just four shots in the first half – the goal, one off-target, and two blocked – but Liverpool converted its best opportunity, and converted it with aplomb. Sturridge kept possession after Okore's attempted tackle, Enrique whipped in a glorious low cross which Coutinho cleverly dummied, and Sturridge – who'd smartly continued his run – danced around Luna and Guzan before hammering into the net from close range.

But from there, downhill, and downhill fairly quickly. Villa's bum rush began as the first half drew to a close, with three successive corners, a fantastic block from Toure on Bacuna's effort, an excellent save from Mignolet on Benteke, and a fortuitous deflection from Agger on Weimann's blast when Liverpool's failed to fully clear that third consecutive corner.

Depressingly, the rest of the match played out in a similar vein, continuing to seesaw further and further in Villa's direction. Liverpool weren't let down by tactics as much as they were by individual mistakes and poor performances. Lucas and Gerrard were especially disappointing, conceding possession far too easily in the second half, overmatched by the Bacuna-Westwood-Delph triumvirate. Coutinho had one of his rare off days, creating no chances, taking just one wildly off-target shot, and completing just 73% of his passes (59% in the attacking third), but he at least played a key role in Liverpool's goal. Enrique and Johnson also gave the ball away too frequently, especially Johnson, but at least "did enough" to prevent their opponents from capitalizing on those errors. Agger once again appeared to want to subconsciously punish Mignolet for replacing Reina, nearly scoring an own goal on an overhit back pass under no pressure, requiring Mignolet to shin wide for a corner.

Liverpool won because Villa couldn't take its chances, thanks to their own wastefulness, decent defending from Toure and Agger (Benteke won just 5 of 12 aerial duels, after winning 12/22 and 14/23 against Chelsea and Arsenal), a crucial block from Gerrard, and another miraculous save from Mignolet. It's nice when that happens to someone else for a change. Mignolet's 86th-minute stop on Benteke's blast was most impressive, somehow clawing away the open strike after the striker found space between the two center-backs.

There's that old cliche about grinding out results, about how teams win even when their performance doesn't merit a win. Liverpool won 1-0, scoring with its only shot on target. They took five in total, just one after Sturridge's 21st minute goal. Meanwhile, Villa took 17. 17! At this point of the season, knowing all too well Liverpool's recent history, that'll do. That'll do just fine for now.

Liverpool hasn't won its first two matches of the campaign since 2008-09, hasn't kept a clean sheet in the first two matches since 2005-06. Yes, there are worries, and rightfully so, but Liverpool will undoubtedly play far better and lose or draw matches this season. It's happened before, it'll probably happen again. You can't complain about six points from six.

23 August 2013

Liverpool at Aston Villa 08.24.13

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13
1-3 Villa (h) 12.15.12
1-1 (h) 04.07.12
2-0 Liverpool (a) 12.18.11

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Stoke (h)
Aston Villa: 1-2 Chelsea (a); 3-1 Arsenal (a)

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Toure Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Henderson Aspas Coutinho

I'm tempted to say same as against Stoke, which I'm almost always tempted to do after a reassuring victory. Liverpool played well and Liverpool won, despite the terrifying final 10 minutes when Liverpool should and would have conceded an equalizer if not for Mignolet, and Liverpool mostly dealt with Stoke's burly threat. Maybe it'll be the same XI in a different shape: Aspas staying on the right with Henderson central, for more heft in the middle of the pitch.

But maybe, away from home, Rodgers opts for a less attacking line-up, knowing how Villa punished Liverpool on the counter last season, replacing Aspas with Allen, keeping the versatile Henderson on the right but also using Allen for a more solid three-man midfield. Stifle the center of the pitch, ensure that there's enough high pressing so Lucas and Gerrard can both sit deep to protect against fast breaks and long balls toward Benteke and Agbonlahor, and try to control possession. The first thought is that Liverpool might not have enough firepower in that XI, but with Sturridge and Coutinho on the pitch, there are usually goals to be found somewhere.

13 sides finished below Liverpool last season. Liverpool have to play two of the three who gave them the toughest matches last season in the first two matches of this campaign; they won't face West Brom until the end of October.

Stoke presented a different set of problems than Villa undoubtedly will. Both are strong in the air and physical in midfield and defense, but Villa's main threat comes from the frighteningly fast and strong forward line.

In two games so far this season, at Arsenal and Chelsea, Benteke has three goals. In two matches against Liverpool last season, Benteke had three goals and an assist, playing a role in every goal Villa scored in those two matches. He is one of the best strikers in the league: dominant in the air but much more than just that, with a wicked left foot and clever link-up play. Agger won just one of his five aerial duels against Stoke, losing all four contested in Liverpool's half. Toure won a marginally more reassuring four of nine (three of six in Liverpool's half), but both will be thoroughly tested by Benteke's prowess. As Bass Tuned to Red pointed out yesterday, Villa's tactic against both Arsenal and Chelsea was to hit long balls toward Benteke when he was pushing towards one of the fullbacks: Arsenal's left-back and Chelsea's right-back. Neither Johnson nor Enrique are especially good in the air as well, which bodes poorly. Liverpool will always have to have at least one covering defender, and Lucas is most likely going to be a very busy man as well, mopping up second balls and protecting against midfield runners charging forward.

Agbonlahor has been almost as crucial in Villa's two matches, winning both penalties against Arsenal and setting up Benteke's goal against Chelsea, finally marrying his blazing speed with more intelligent decision-making. Glen Johnson will have his hands full of that as well, and will probably need to scale back his forays forward.

But Villa's defense is also much more resilient – the side that gave up eight against Chelsea last season wasn't fazed by conceding early against both Arsenal and Chelsea this season, coming back to score a first-half equalizer in both matches, although both Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark will undergo late fitness tests. The midfield's also more cohesive, with Delph especially showing signs of improvement in the first two matches. Villa's most likely XI is Guzan; Lowton,Vlaar, Clark, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor.

The second half of March's match at Villa Park seems cause for slight optimism, that Liverpool might have solved the problems which bedeviled them over the first 135 minutes that the two sides played last season. Liverpool overhauled a deficit with two goals in 15 minutes while Coutinho ran riot, then shut up shop, pressing effectively, limiting opportunities. Gerrard cleared Benteke's lone chance off the line, and Liverpool held firm when they'd too often conceded in previous matches.

But this is a better Villa side that at any time last season, including when they were at their best against Liverpool. They handily beat an imploding Arsenal, and should have earned at least a draw at Chelsea, denied potential game-changing moments by two referee decisions.

Liverpool may have passed its first test against Stoke, albeit with less than flying colors, but tomorrow will be a much sterner exam.

20 August 2013

On Aly Cissokho


Oh wait, that's a different piece.

While every internet denizen was shouting about Spurs ostensibly pipping Liverpool to another attacking target, Liverpool actually finally filled one of their positions of need. Left back Aly Cissokho signed on a one-year loan, reportedly with an option to buy for €5m at the end of the season – the same price that Valencia paid for him one year ago.

As with most transfers from foreign leagues, I'm far more reliant on statistics rather than a firsthand appraisal; I remember Cissokho played well in both meetings against Liverpool in the 2009-10 Champions League, especially the 1-2 loss at Anfield when up against Kelly and Kuyt, but that's about it. So stats it is, all of which are from WhoScored.

Jose Enrique has been a very good defender for Liverpool. His defending isn't much of a concern; it's his ability in attack. All too often, he's a bull in a china shop in the final third, and even more notably, often loses possession during sustained Liverpool attacks, whether through a poor touch or misplaced pass.

That's what Liverpool need to improve on, so crucial to the way Rodgers wants his sides to play. So let's create a "lost possession" metric.

Lost possession = Times dispossessed + Turnovers + Unsuccessful passes + Unsuccessful crosses

Enrique played 2257 minutes in 29 Premiership appearances last season. He was dispossessed 56 times, committed 10 turnovers, made 304 unsuccessful passes, and attempted 61 unsuccessful crosses. By the above, admittedly somewhat facile, metric, Enrique lost possession once every 5.1 minutes.

Cissokho played 1684 minutes in 25 La Liga appearances for Valencia last season. He was dispossessed three times, committed 10 turnovers, made 119 unsuccessful passes, and attempted 67 unsuccessful crosses. Cissokho lost possession once every 8.5 minutes.

In handy table form:

For comparison, Luis Suarez lost possession once every 5.9 minutes: dispossessed 94 times, turning the ball over 79 times, attempting 282 unsuccessful passes, and attempting 42 unsuccessful crosses. Yes, in last season's league matches, Jose Enrique lost possession more often than Luis Suarez. By this metric, more than any other Liverpool player.

I wish I had the XY data to know where these possession losses took place, but it's safe to assume that a fair amount of Enrique's took place in the opposition half. I have to believe that's the main thing Rodgers wants to improve by signing competition at left back.

Enrique completed more key passes and through balls than Cissokho, both in total and per minute, but not a drastic amount more. Enrique created a chance once every 86.8 minutes, Cissokho once every 112.3 minutes in a less creative side. Liverpool created 141 more chances than Valencia did last season, so it's little surprise that Cissokho created 11 fewer than Enrique in 600 fewer minutes.

In attack, Cissokho seems far more limited to the touchline, while Enrique creates chances from all over the left half of the pitch (including a couple from inside Liverpool's half). Which may and may not be a bad thing. Rodgers prefers his players to be multifunctional, to join in attacks from all angles – which Enrique seems far better at – but at the same time, Cissokho staying wide more often than not can provide more space for Coutinho, Sturridge, Suarez, Aspas, Sterling, et al to drift around the final third. Anyone's who's likely to play on the left for Liverpool likes to cut inside from the flank.

Eight of Cissokho's 15 chances created (and both of his assists) came in the last seven matches of the season. 19 of Enrique's 26 chances came in the first half of the season, creating just three in the last seven matches.

Incidentally, only one of Enrique's chances created came in Liverpool's biggest routs – setting up the Suarez injury time goal in the 4-0 win over Fulham. He didn't play in the 5-2 or 5-0 wins against Norwich, and didn't create any chances in the 5-0 win over Swansea, 4-0 win at Wigan, or 6-0 win at Newcastle.

Seven of Cissokho's 15 chances created came from crosses, including both assists, while only two of Enrique's did. In total, Cissokho completed 19 of 86 crosses (22.1%), while Enrique completed seven of 68 crosses (10.3%). Admittedly, Liverpool don't rely on many crosses, not anymore (thankfully), but it's a nice option to have, as Enrique's exceedingly poor at them.

Overall, Cissohko had a better overall pass success rate than Enrique as well: 79.2% to 76.7%. On average, Cissokho completed a pass once every 3.7 minutes, Enrique once every 2.3 minutes, but that's another stat that is partly explained by the two teams' respective playing styles.

It's not a priority for left backs, but Cissokho was more much judicious and much more accurate in his shooting last season. He only took nine shots, hitting the target with 56% of them, scoring two goals. Enrique took 22, hitting the target with 36% of them, also scoring twice. Eight of Enrique's shots came further from goal than any of Cissokho's attempts.

By most defensive statistics, Enrique was better than Cissokho last season. Both averaged the same amount of interceptions per match – 1.2 – but Enrique made 2.5 tackles per match to Cissokho's 1.8, and committed just about half as many fouls. I can't find the relevant statistic on any of the available sites, but it's safe to assume that Enrique shielded the ball into touch more often than Cissokho as well, given that Enrique's one of the best in the league at it.

But one defensive statistic is heavily in Cissokho's favor. And it's one that's very important to Liverpool given the club's weakness in this area. Cissokho won 34 of 47 aerial duels last season, an average of 1.4 per match and a success rate of 72.3%. Enrique won just 13 of 34, an average of 0.4 per match and a success rate of 38.2%, even though Enrique is three inches taller than Cissokho. No Liverpool player had a higher aerial duel success rate than Cissokho last season.

There is a little to be worried about. Cissokho missed a lot of matches last season, making only 25 league appearances last season (seven as a substitute). By the end of the campaign, Andres Guardado seemed first choice left back, with Cissokho making more appearances as a attacking substitute on the left. Valencia's had the opportunity to examine Guardado, fullback/center-back Jeremy Mathieu, and young winger/fullback Juan Bernat, and decided that Cissokho is the expendable one, even though he's younger than both Guardado and Mathieu, after buying the player just one year ago. Yes, Valencia – like all of La Liga aside of Barca and Real – need the money, but that's slightly concerning.

Cissokho's not Liverpool's first choice either. Guilherme Siqueira, Ryan Bertrand, and Lorenzo Melgarejo were all linked before this deal was completed. At least Liverpool's making a move, as a move needed to be a made, but it's not necessarily the move they preferred.

Which is why it's nice that Liverpool are trying before buying. There's no reported clause requiring Liverpool to complete the transfer at the end of the season. And Cissokho will have a fight to dislodge Enrique from the starting XI, proving his worth, playing for a full contract. The addition strengthens Liverpool, in a position that Liverpool needed to strengthen, in facets of the game that Liverpool needed to strengthen. If it comes off, Liverpool will add an excellent player for a low-ish price. If it doesn't, they're out Cissokho's wages and a €1m-or-so loan fee. Small peanuts in the greater scheme of things.

Once again, it appears that Liverpool are acting intelligently in the transfer market, despite the frustrations in trying to sign another attacker. It remains a refreshing change.

19 August 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Stoke

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

I'm gonna test drive of couple of new sections this season: shot location and chance creation location. Any comments are welcome, as well as any suggestions for other sections. If it's feasible, I'll give it a whirl.

The former idea is via Dan Kennett. As Dan wrote when previewing this season's Liverpool, last season's Liverpool took far too many speculative shots, shots with little chance of going in. That wasn't the case on Saturday, with 17 of 25 shots taken inside the box, and another five from just outside the area – including Liverpool's lone goal. I'm interested to see if that continues.

It resulted in Liverpool putting 44% of its shots on target. Last season's average was 31.8%. Liverpool put a higher percentage of shots on target in just three matches last season: 5-0 v Norwich, 1-3 at Southampton, and 6-0 at Newcastle.

Meanwhile, three of Liverpool's chances came from corners, but almost everything else was created in the center of the pitch: three inside the box, nine just outside the box, and three from deep.

Liverpool's also improved its passing in the final third from last year's averages. Against Stoke, Liverpool attempted 202, completing 149, for 73.8% accuracy. Last season, Liverpool averaged 159 final third passes per match, completing 115, for 72.3% accuracy. They completed more final third passes in just four matches in 2012-13: 1-0 v QPR, 0-0 v West Ham, 5-0 v Norwich, and 1-3 v Aston Villa.

16 of Liverpool's 32 successful tackles came in Stoke's half of the pitch. Liverpool's total – 36 attempted tackles, 32 successful – so dwarfs any match last season that I'm tempted to think Opta changed the definition of a tackle event. Liverpool's highest total last season was 27 (of 30 attempted) in the 1-1 draw at Chelsea. That and the 1-2 loss at United were the only times Liverpool made more than 25 successful tackles last season.

32 tackles. But just look at that large empty area in the middle of Liverpool's half of the pitch. That's some pressing.

Stoke's statistics suggest that Mark Hughes really will try to change Tony Pulis' style. Last season at Anfield, Tony Pulis' side attempted fewer passes than Mark Hughes' side completed on Saturday. Stoke's passing totals in last season's meetings were 190 of 288 (66.0%) at Anfield, 203 of 284 (71.5%) at the Britannia; Saturday's was 337 of 417 (80.8%). Stoke had 37.6% and 36.5% possession in the two meetings last season, but 45.1% on Saturday. Hughes' Stoke took more shots, including shots on target, and created more chances than when they beat Liverpool 3-1 last December. But whether or not that style succeeds, however…

Finally, I threatened to highlight Lucas's performance in the match review, so here goes.

He'll undoubtedly have matches with more passes and a higher accuracy, but what impressed me was his running – look at how many passes were completed in the final third, especially on the right side of the pitch, moving into that space to support Johnson as Henderson and/or Aspas drifted inside – and his duels. Lucas won all six of his attempted tackles, three of his five attempted headers (which is no small matter given Liverpool's weaknesses in the air), and completed a successful dribble (just before creating a chance for Coutinho).

17 August 2013

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke

Sturridge 37'

Holy wow.

It goes without saying that Liverpool don't win that match last season. Or in any season since 2008-09. I honestly still don't understand how Liverpool won that match.

We've seen this script before, countless times before. Liverpool looked incredibly potent, but were denied again and again and again. Sturridge made the breakthrough in the 37th minute, a fierce, perfectly-placed shot from the top of the box through Huth's legs and around Begovic, but we've seen a one-goal lead spoiled by accident/ineptness/karma all too often over the last couple of campaigns. Unable to get the needed second, Stoke retained a constant threat, especially, unsurprisingly, on counter-attacks and set plays.

The lack of Liverpool goals wasn't down to a too-frequent wastefulness in the final third, whether in the pass or shot, but Begovic playing wholly out of his mind. By full time, the Stoke keeper had made 10 saves. 10! Meanwhile, Liverpool hit the woodwork twice, and had a goal (rightfully) ruled out for offside. The more things change...

It was all set up for the inevitable stomach punch. It nearly happened in the 8th minute, before Liverpool even got going, when Mignolet flapped at Stoke's first corner, ending with a Huth cannonball off the crossbar. That Liverpool's opponent actually hit the woodwork, instead of just Liverpool hitting the woodwork, should have been the first sign that this might well be a different season to seasons past.

Five minutes after that came the goal chalked off and Liverpool's first woodwork strike: Sturridge went a second too early before heading in Gerrard's free kick, swiftly followed by Toure's header off the bar from Gerrard's corner.

Liverpool's first two chances may have surprisingly came from set plays, but after that, Liverpool were unsurprisingly most threatening in open play. The movement from the front four was outstanding: Sturridge dropping deep and playing off the last shoulder, Henderson and Coutinho cutting inside, Aspas constantly drifting across the width and breadth of Stoke's half. Players rotated, players kept moving, players kept showing for the pass to relieve pressure. With Stoke pinned inside their own half, all the width came from Liverpool's fullbacks, while even Lucas and Gerrard both felt comfortable enough to join the attack. That Aspas played centrally, sometimes switching positions with Henderson, but drifting behind and around Sturridge more often than not, is most likely a hint as to how Suarez will be used when the Uruguayan returns from suspension.

But Begovic kept getting in the way, saving excellent chances from Aspas, Enrique, Henderson, and Sturridge before Liverpool's striker finally struck, set up by sustained pressure and a touch from almost everyone in red before Aspas's layoff just outside the area. But despite the breakthrough, it was Stoke who threatened in the final minutes of the half, Mignolet excellently denying Walters's blast, and then Lucas clearing off the line following a scrambled, shambling corner. Deep breaths.

The opening stages of the second half resumed the seesaw in Liverpool's direction, with only Begovic and a couple of narrowly errant shots preventing a second. Coutinho fired wide, Henderson and Sturridge were unbelievably denied, and Aspas headed just past the far post on a corner before Begovic made his best save of the match, somehow getting the narrowest of touches on Henderson's shot, ever so slightly redirecting it onto the post.

Two more saves by Begovic, on Gerrard's free kick and Johnson at the near post, inevitably gave away to Stoke pressure and Liverpool heart attacks in the final ten minutes. Unable to get the needed second, Liverpool were pushed deeper and deeper, desperately holding onto the lead, similar to the first home win last season against Reading, highlighted by Adam, on as a substitute, cheekily shooting from the halfway line, requiring Mignolet to tip over. But the real Stoke chances, the real heart-stoppers, continued to come from set plays.

And it was on a set play that Liverpool gave up a penalty, with Agger brainlessly – yes, I'm sorry Daniel, I still love you, but brainlessly is an apt adjective – handling Adam's free kick. Walters, who had a brace the last time Stoke faced Liverpool, including one from the spot, stepped up. And was ruthlessly denied by Liverpool's debutant keeper. All the feelings. So many feelings.

I still can't believe Walters didn't score. Judging by the celebrations from everyone but Mignolet, neither could the Liverpool players.

That was Liverpool's first win in opening game of the league campaign since beating Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light in that 2008-09 season, the first win in a league opener at Anfield since beating West Ham 2-1 in 2001-02. Yes, 13 seasons ago.

Mignolet gets the headlines, increasingly excellent after some shaky moments on set plays and crosses in the first half. Sturridge, still probably not 100% fit, continued last season's goal-scoring pace, the difference in this tight match. Liverpool's front four looked more than fluid, and it'll be even better with more experience; Coutinho and Aspas were the most creative, with five chances apiece, while neither the Brazilian nor Henderson looked out of place on the flank. But aside from the overwhelming love for Mignolet's save, my focus was on Lucas.

We'll undoubtedly cover this in further detail in Monday's match infographic (with links to some chalkboards, as StatsZone isn't working for me at the moment) but 64/76 passes, six tackles, two interceptions, winning 60% of his aerial duels (against Stoke!), and – most surprisingly – creating two chances. He wasn't limited to a holding role either, getting forward to support the attack even more often than Gerrard, although undoubtedly allowed to do so because of Stoke's tactics more than a determined plan for the future. This is the first time since his extended injury where he's looked back to his absolute best for the full 90 minutes. That continuing will make as much difference to Liverpool's form as improvement in defense or more fluidity and potency in attack.

Yes, Liverpool should have scored more. Yes, Liverpool are still all-too-often terrifying on opposition counter-attacks and set plays. Yes, those are not new facets.

But Liverpool won. Somehow, Liverpool won. Liverpool will learn from the experience, and more importantly, Liverpool will gain confidence from the experience. In the first match of the new campaign, that's really all that matters.

16 August 2013

Liverpool v Stoke 08.17.13

7:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Stoke (a) 12.26.12
0-0 (h) 10.07.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 03.18.12
0-0 (h) 01.14.12

Last three preseason matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Celtic (n); 4-1 Vålerenga (a); 2-0 Olympiakos (h)
Stoke: 0-0 Genoa (h); 1-0 Wrexham (a); 2-0 Philadelphia Union (a)

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Toure Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Aspas Coutinho Henderson

Football football football football. Oh how I missed you.

Wait, what? The first match is against Stoke? Well, so much for the return of football. We'll have to wait another week for that.

Oh, Stoke. Tony Pulis may be gone, but Tony Pulis' players remain. And chances are, even with Mark Hughes in charge, this will be very much like a Tony Pulis XI playing Tony Pulis football. The question, as always, is whether Liverpool can cope with it. You know, for a change.

The first XI of the season, with only Suarez assuredly absent, is always more difficult to predict. Is Sturridge definitely fit enough to start? Will Liverpool use Gerrard, Allen, and Lucas in a three-man midfield, or will Coutinho play as the #10 with two from Sterling, Aspas, and Henderson out wide?

If Sturridge isn't available, at least from the start, the line-up's easier to predict. Aspas as the lone striker, Sterling on the right, and Henderson or Coutinho on the left depending on Rodgers' preferred midfield.

That this match is against Stoke – one of Liverpool's bêtes noires, a physical side who Liverpool's beaten just twice in ten league meetings – seems a harbinger of things to come. How Rodgers sees tomorrow's XI could well be how Rodgers treats most of the home matches against the burly lower half of the division. I think (or maybe, I hope) that Liverpool will be proactive, that Coutinho will be the attacking hub, that Sturridge will run riot, that Aspas will get the chance to play from the right, that Henderson will continue to provide balance and running from the other flank. But I'm nowhere near certain that'll be the case.

Mark Hughes' Stoke seems easier to predict. Other than the addition of left-back Erik Pieters from PSV, it'll most likely be the same Stoke side that we're used to. Something like Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Pieters; Palacios, N'Zonzi; Walters, Adam, Etherington; Crouch.

Marc Muniesa, the other marquee signing (a free transfer from Barcelona), seems unlikely to feature so soon, used as a substitute throughout preseason. And as always, I'm incredibly fearful of ex-Liverpool players facing their former club. Yes, even ex-players like Charlie Adam, while Crouch's only goal against Liverpool since leaving Liverpool was in Stoke's 2-1 FA Cup loss in 2011-12.

Has Mark Hughes had enough time to beat the Stoke out of Stoke? It's not easy teaching old, ugly, probably-should-have-been-put-down-months-ago dogs new tricks. Obviously, it'd be nice to see that lot try to play some football; it'd seemingly make Liverpool's task a lot easier. Hughes will be under pressure from both club and fans to be more aesthetically pleasing (or, more accurately, less aesthetically offensive), but I don't know how much that pressure will be felt in the first match of the season, away from home, against a side that Stoke's patented brand of rugby has foiled so often.

Liverpool have hosted Stoke five times since the Potters were promoted. Liverpool won two of those meetings – way way back in 2009 and 2011 – while the other three ended 0-0. I'm always afraid of putting far too much stock in one match, let alone the first match of the season, but Liverpool's play tomorrow, and, more importantly, Liverpool's result tomorrow, will undoubtedly be seen as a valid predictor for how the rest of the season will play out.

15 August 2013

2013-14 Liverpool Season Preview

This isn't quite a "make or break" season, but we're getting there.

Last season was something of a write-off. New manager, a new playing style, and a handful of new players. All we really wanted was some sort of tangible progress we could point to, to say "yes, there might finally be some light at the end of this interminable tunnel." Which we got, especially in the second half of the season, despite finishing a disappointing seventh.

Summer Business:
In: Luis Alberto (£6.8m), Iago Aspas (£7m), Simon Mignolet (£9m), Kolo Toure (free) = £22.8m
Out: Jamie Carragher (retired), Andy Carroll (£15m), Stewart Downing (£6m), Pepe Reina (loan), Jonjo Shelvey (£6m), Jay Spearing (£1.7m) = £28.7m

If you count January transfers, all of Liverpool's business has been straight swaps. Sturridge for Carroll, Coutinho for Shelvey, Mignolet for Reina, Aspas for Downing, Toure for Carragher, and Luis Alberto for Joe Cole. Spearing, on loan, didn't feature in last season's side, and probably doesn't need replacing in Rodgers' eyes. Each new signing is arguably better than the Liverpool player they're taking over for – except Toure for Carragher, although Kolo's looked a more than decent player during preseason. Just as importantly in FSG's view, each is younger, and is on substantially lower wages without reducing the overall quality in the side. Coupled with January's deals, Liverpool's net transfer spend in the calendar year is around £15m, not counting the massive reduction in wages.

Unfortunately, despite the excellent start to this summer's business, Liverpool haven't added anyone since July 1, with Alberto, Aspas, Mignolet, and Toure all wrapped up before the transfer window even opened.

Mkhitaryan? Nope. Diego Costa? Staying at Atletico on an improved contract. Papadopoulos, or some other colossus center-back? Nope. Competition for Lucas? Incredibly unlikely. Competition for Enrique? Not yet, although there are rumors that Granada's Guilherme Siqueira could be imminent.

If the above is the end of Liverpool's transfer dealings, so be it. The squad is better. And younger and cheaper, but more importantly, better. But it could be even better than it is. There have been too many lost opportunities over the last five years.

And then there was the whole Suarez fiasco. At least Liverpool seemingly played that well. No bid came in from Real Madrid or Bayern, and with Arsenal the only suitor, Liverpool refused to sell. Rightfully so. I'd have sold an unhappy Suarez to Real for £40m. I wouldn't have sold to Arsenal for £140m. You don't strength direct competitors, something Arsenal painfully learned with van Persie last season.

But I'll be honest. I still don't necessarily see where Luis fits into the team that Rodgers is building.

Expected Formation and Suspected Depth Chart:

I truly expected Suarez to leave this summer, and while it may still happen, it does not look likely. The signings of Aspas and Luis Alberto, and the pursuit of players such as Mkhitaryan and Diego Costa only fed into that notion. All seemed signings meant to help replace Suarez rather than co-exist with him.

Liverpool with Sturridge and Coutinho looked a completely different side in the second half of the season. And Suarez looked a different player, one who was beginning to fit into a team rather than being the team's sole shining light: averaging more than a shot less per match after Sturridge's debut – 5.75 compared to 4.6 – but putting more of his shots on target – 2.0 compared to 2.62– with only a small drop in goals per game and almost exactly the same number of chances created per game. Meanwhile, Sturridge chipped in with 10 league goals over 14 games, putting 62% of his shots on target, while Coutinho picked up the slack in chance creation, totaling the same number of assists in 13 games as Suarez did in 33. Only Santi Cazorla averaged more accurate throughballs per match than Coutinho last season.

When you have world class players – and Suarez remains a world class player, no matter his baggage – you make it work. But Sturridge has looked most effective as the spearhead. Coutinho has looked most effective when playing as the #10. Suarez has been vastly more effective in those two positions. Does that mean Suarez is relegated to the flank, where he's frequently failed to impress, or Coutinho is?

The easy answer to that question is "it depends on the opposition." And that will probably be the case. If it's, say, Arsenal away, maybe Liverpool line up like they did last season, with Suarez on the left, Sturridge central, and Coutinho on the bench in order to use three central midfielders. But if it's Norwich or Palace or Hull at home, we could see similar to the team which beat Swansea at home in February: Sturridge and Suarez central, with Coutinho cutting inside from the left. While neither Suarez nor Sturridge looked anywhere near their best the few times each was used on the flanks, using either there remains a possibility, one that may well improve with time. And if one of Liverpool's multi-functional attackers are missing – say, due to suspension – Liverpool have a variety of replacements, the option to change either personnel or formation. Options aren't a bad thing to have.

Brendan Rodgers is building a team full of multi-functional attackers. Besides Suarez, Coutinho, and (to a lesser extent) Sturridge, Aspas can play on the right or as the main striker. Supposedly, Luis Alberto can play pretty much anywhere in attack. Both Sterling and Ibe can line up on either flank. Fabio Borini played in all three attacking positions last season (we'll avoid mentioning how well he did in those roles, mind). Henderson and Allen can play any of the three midfield positions, while I still think Henderson's best position in this Liverpool side might well be on the left.

But, yes, there are still glaring weaknesses. Most notably, another center-back, especially given Liverpool's weaknesses last season – especially in the air – as well as a left-back to challenge Jose Enrique, but also cover for Lucas – unless Rodgers believes that Allen and/or Henderson are more equipped to fill that role than they were in 2012-13.

Could Liverpool finish fourth, even without any more additions? Actually, yes. The squad's marginally better, and had a decent offseason and preseason to build on the gains made from January on. In the last 19 games of last season, Tottenham were only three points better than Liverpool, Arsenal four. Arsenal haven't strengthened (yet) – partly thanks to Liverpool. Tottenham have, but their squad isn't that much better than Liverpool's, and they're ostensibly in the same position as Liverpool in keeping a potentially unhappy talisman, with fewer possible replacements in the squad. Who knows how the Bale situation plays out. In complete contrast to last season, Liverpool have one of the easiest opening halves of their campaign, and could build up some serious momentum by January. Winning begets winning, after all.

But could Liverpool finish sixth? Easily. That's probably the more likely result. And if it happens, it may well be cause for alarm. But it also may well be the fair result. Liverpool have a lot of ground to make up to catch up with Tottenham and Arsenal, let alone the best three clubs in the division. Liverpool could make up a fair bit of that ground and still finish behind them. Like last season, what will matter is progress: if we saw it, and how much of it.

Needed improvements:
Shooting: Just read this. Also, see this image from Dan Kennett's excellent season preview on Stats Bomb.

• Aerial duels: Only Wigan won fewer last season. And, statistically, Kolo Toure's even worse in the air than Carragher. Gulp.

Mentality: WBA (a), Arsenal (h), Tottenham (a), Aston Villa (h), United (a), WBA (h), Southampton (a)

Those are the matches Liverpool lost after conceding first.

- Sunderland (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), City (a), Chelsea (h)

Those are the matches Liverpool drew after conceding first.

- Aston Villa (a), Fulham (a)

Those are the matches that Liverpool won after conceding first. Just two, both in the final two months of the season.

When Liverpool scored early, Liverpool usually ran riot. Norwich (twice), Wigan, Fulham, Swansea, Sunderland, QPR, and Newcastle. The only match Liverpool lost after scoring in the opening quarter of the game was at Stoke, a 1-3 defeat after Gerrard's 2nd-minute penalty; as usual, Stoke's the exception that proves the rule. The only other loss after scoring first was the home match against United, where a ten-man Liverpool took the lead early in the second half but lost 1-2 after a contentious winning penalty from van Persie.

But when Liverpool concede early, Liverpool all too often struggle. The above list of fixtures, and – if, for some reason, we're putting stock in preseason – last week's friendly against Celtic spring immediately to mind. Draws from that situation against the likes of Chelsea (twice) and City at least demonstrate that the side was more resilient than the soul-killing 2011-12 model, but there's still a too frequent pattern to Liverpool losses, especially losses against teams Liverpool should expect to beat. Allow an unlikely opener, then fail to break through a resolute defense despite overwhelming possession and numerous chances. Liverpool will need to continue the slow but steady improvement in this area that we saw as last season went on.

But that's pretty much the mantra for every facet of this campaign.

10 August 2013

Liverpool 0-1 Celtic

Amido Balde 12'

Well that's not the way this preseason was supposed to end.

Let's go through the list of Liverpool's major weakness last season. Humor me.

• Struggling to achieve fluency against a physical, resilient, tightly-packed defense? Check.

• Still creating chances, but foiled by an outstanding performance from the opposition keeper and/or their own profligacy in the final third? Check.

• An inability to come back, despite overwhelming possession, after conceding first? Check.

• Conceding on the counter-attack, with a lot of blame on a single Liverpool mistake, as well as frightening defending on set plays? Check.

• An inability to cope with a burly frontman? Check, although, thankfully, to a lesser extent than Benteke, Walters, Carlton Cole, etc (thanks Kolo).

We're ready for Stoke next week. Sigh.

Yes, yes, it's still preseason. Don't overreact when Liverpool play well, so don't overreact when Liverpool play poorly. And, admittedly, it wasn't nearly as bad as last season's "bad."

Nonetheless, it's slightly worrying that so many of last season's disappointments reappeared today, against the toughest opposition that Liverpool have faced over these seven friendlies. That's not a welcome sign right before the real football starts.

Don't get me wrong, there were some positives. Toure looked far better at dealing with the physicality of Balde than any Liverpool defender did against the aforementioned brawny strikers last season. Ibe and Sturridge, despite forgetting their shooting boots, were vast improvements on Aspas and Downing when coming off the bench; that Sturridge was fit enough to play 45 minutes today is an excellent sign for next Saturday. Rodgers again demonstrated Liverpool's increasing versatility, with different midfield set-ups in each half, utilizing Coutinho, Henderson, Allen, and Gerrard's adaptability. And Liverpool monopolized possession and monopolized chances, Liverpool just shot poorly – which hadn't been much of a problem through the first six friendlies – while Zaluska also kept Celtic ahead with some outstanding saves in the first half. But, yes, Liverpool did that a lot in draws and losses last season too.

In addition to the above litany of previously seen complaints, I was incredibly disappointed by Aspas' struggles against Celtic's center-backs. The star of preseason so far, the Spaniard conjured next to nothing today; even his first touch completely deserted him, always looking over his shoulder to see where contact might come from. Nonstop movement, but absolutely no end product. That bodes poorly against next week's opponents, and against Premier League opposition in general.

Also, not only is it only preseason but he's only 20, yet Andre Wisdom also notably suffered today. Like Aspas, Wisdom had been one of preseason's revelations, looking surprisingly comfortable at center-back, albeit against much weaker forwards. It may have been my fault, making the amateur mistake of talking up his future on Twitter prior to the match, but Wisdom hasn't looked so at sea since Mirallas tormented him so effectively for the first half of last season's first Merseyside derby.

On the whole, this was still Liverpool's best preseason since 2008-09, winning six of seven, scoring 17 while conceding just twice. Liverpool's squad looks more cohesive, more coherent than last season, especially in attack, even if there are still identifiable holes that we'd hoped would have been filled by now.

And all that said, all that's been said in these friendly reviews, it is still just preseason. We'll know much more about where we stand and how loudly we should scream in a week's time.

07 August 2013

Liverpool 4-1 Vålerenga

Luis Alberto 31'
Gonzalez 35'
Aspas 44'
Kelly 54'
Sterling 90+1'

A return to normalcy
More of what we expect from preseason in terms of personnel, a more familiar formation, and a more familiar Liverpool – for better and for worse.

Both halves featured almost totally different XIs, unlike in most of the previous friendlies. With just one more to play, against Celtic on Saturday, Rodgers is seemingly putting the finishing touches on full fitness, especially with his hands tied by Agger, Johnson, Skrtel, and Suarez unable to travel (or, more probably, unwilling in the latter's case, but let's not talk about that please).

And both XIs saw Liverpool return to last season's 4-2-3-1 formation, with Luis Alberto then Coutinho ahead of two "sitting" midfielders: Henderson and Allen, then Lucas and Gerrard, rather than the more out-and-out 4-3-3 with two attacking midfielders ahead of one anchor against both Thailand and Olympiakos.

Also all too familiar was Liverpool wastefulness. The visitors bossed the match, from start to finish, and should have had far more than four goals to show for it, too often failing, if only barely, at the final hurdle. Borini, Coutinho, and Gerrard each missed by inches in the second half, Aspas should have won a penalty in the first half, and Vålerenga's starting keeper made some excellent saves, predominately on Aspas. Unsurprisingly, the crossbar also struck again. Or, more accurately, Liverpool struck the crossbar again. And again and again. Aspas, Toure, and Borini all hit the woodwork, Liverpool's fifth, sixth, and seventh strikes off the crossbar through six preseason matches. Seriously guys, it's not funny anymore. It's spooky. And depressing. And slightly infuriating.

Still, it's hard to complain when Liverpool are wasteful yet score four goals. But – unnecessary disclaimer – Liverpool will assuredly come up against tougher defenses; Vålerenga's fullbacks were especially tortured today.

There was also a firm sense of deja vu when Liverpool finally conceded its first goal of preseason. Because it came from a set play, something that happened 17 times last season (26.6% of Liverpool's goals conceded in all competitions). Eight of those 17 were corners, like today's, as Gonzalez eluded Henderson's marking easily, giving Jones absolutely no chance to stop the free header.

The more things change, the more that some things stay the same.

The stars
Allen, Ibe, and Aspas in the first half, Borini, Coutinho, and Sterling in the second half, while Wisdom was impressive throughout.

As mentioned above, both Ibe and Sterling thrived against Vålerenga's left- and right-backs respectively, causing havoc time and time again with both pace and trickery. But, heck, even Downing beat his defender for pace a couple of times so maybe that wasn't quite as impressive as it looked. Still, the kids are alright.

Allen looks back to the form that we saw to start last season, when he was Liverpool's best player through the first few matches (matches which Liverpool admittedly did not do well in): setting up and continuing attacks, spreading play well, getting forward but also doing a reasonable job in the holding role when needed. Who would have guessed that having a healthy shoulder would improve one's ability to play football at a high level?

Today's goal was Aspas' fourth in preseason, to go along with his three assists. In just about 300 minutes of football, which means he's either setting up or scoring a goal once every 42 minutes or so. And, again, he should have had more today, whether through a penalty, when hitting the crossbar, or when twice denied by the opposition keeper. I'm already overusing this line and we're not even into "real football" yet, but yes, chaos is come again. Get used to it.

Finally, Wisdom – still only 20 years old – looks better every time I see him play. Yes, yes, preseason, but his positioning at center-back seems miles better than it looked at right back last season, knowing where to be to cut off attacks. He's quite good in the air (something Liverpool desperately needs), and better with the ball at his feet with each successive appearance. I'm truly looking forward to his development.

The goals
Via the outstanding Feint Zebra:

Luis Alberto | Aspas | Kelly | Sterling

Visit his website frequently and follow him on Twitter if, somehow, you aren't doing so already.

03 August 2013

Liverpool 2-0 Olympiakos

Allen 23'
Henderson 63'

Yep, it's almost the start of the season
There was only one change to the starting XI which faced Thailand six days ago: Sterling for Borini, with Aspas moving back into the middle. Otherwise, same players, same formation: a 'more orthodox' 4-3-3, with three mobile forwards and both Allen and Gerrard ahead of Lucas as an out-and-out defensive midfielder. Are you sensing a trend here?

Allen and Gerrard's movement
And like against Thailand, Allen and Gerrard were both demonstrably ahead of Lucas, used further forward than either were last season. There were multiple occasions that Allen and Gerrard were both inside the penalty box, that Allen was the furthest forward attacker. And those runs into the box from midfield are a necessary development with the way that Aspas, Suarez, and Coutinho (and, ostensibly, Luis Alberto) play: mobile attackers who drop deep, pull wide, and cover almost every blade of grass in the attacking third. All too often, Liverpool were reliant on Suarez to get into the box and make magic last season, because no one else was in there.

It's no exaggeration to suggest Allen should have had a hat-trick in the first half. He missed a close-range volley after an audacious Aspas backheel as well a free header from Gerrard's deep cross, so we'll have to settle for this tap-in, again set up by Aspas.

If this tactic continues, Liverpool's ability to cope with counter attacks will be a worry. Or maybe, more accurately, "remain" a worry; counter-attacks were worrisome enough last season. Lucas looks fitter than he was in 2012-13, while Toure's quicker than Skrtel or Carragher, but there's a reason that Rodgers relied on two sitting midfielders for almost all of last season, especially after the opening five or so matches.

Iago Aspas
As implied in the last section, Aspas was the other start of the show in the first half along with Allen. The Spaniard is capable of some magic tricks to rival Suarez ("they're illusions, Michael!"): the aforementioned back heel for Allen, a Cryuff turn in the box, always looking to run at, spin, and embarrass defenders in whatever way seems plausible. I think we're going to enjoy the Aspas era. Chaos is come again.

Coutinho on the left
But preseason's usual star was one who underwhelmed in that first half. As we saw at times last season, Coutinho didn't get enough of the ball to truly threaten when used on the left, more concerned with keeping position and tracking back to support Enrique when needed.

That changed in the opening stage of the second half, with the Brazilian determined to come inside to get on the ball more often, highlighted by his immaculate long throughball – reminiscent of assists at Newcastle last season – which Sterling chipped over the keeper but narrowly wide.

I'm very curious to see how this plays out over the course of the season. Will Rodgers stick with the more 4-3-3 formation, with Coutinho 'relegated' to the left (which the pursuit of Mhkitaryan heavily suggests is an option), or will Coutinho be used as his squad number suggests, a playmaking #10 where he's been so impressive? The answer is probably "both, depending on the opposition" but it's something to keep an eye on.

And then it became a testimonial
Until Liverpool's second goal – incredibly well-taken by the substitute Henderson, demonstrating the finishing ability (with his weaker foot!) that we need to see from him – this was actually a competitive friendly. As increasingly demonstrated during the Asia Tour, Rodgers is taking preseason seriously, working the side into full fitness as soon as possible in the hopes of starting the season vastly better than the last campaign.

But then a testimonial broke out, mostly because of Fowler and Carragher's entrances. That's what testimonials are for, after all.

The highlights from there were John Aldridge, in the stands, chortling at Fowler's errant, too-slow tackle; Suarez doing his frustrated hop when Fowler was unable to get on the end of a chipped throughball, followed by Fowler just smiling at him; and a wonderful chance for Fowler – set up by Sterling and Gerrard – ungratefully blocked by an Olympiakos defender. The cur.

A day, and a celebration, deserving of Liverpool's current captain. Thank you, Steven Gerrard.

02 August 2013

Infographic - Captain Fantastic [Updated]

In honor of Gerrard's testimonial against Olympiakos tomorrow, here's an updated version of an infographic posted more than a year and a half ago.

As always, and as before, couldn't have been done without the invaluable statistics from LFCHistory.net.

I'm happy to say that there will be further updates of this infographic in the future. Hopefully, for many, many more years to come.