30 September 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 3-1 Sunderland

Previous Match Infographics: Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

It's nice to see Liverpool respond to adversity.

Liverpool's passing accuracy before Sunderland's goal? 80.7%. After the goal? 86.6%. 3.38 completed passes per minute prior, 4.35 after. Fewer passes in Liverpool's half, more passes stretching Sunderland's defense via the flanks. I don't have the minute-by-minute possession breakdowns, but Liverpool dominated the ball in the second half compared to their first half possession.

Liverpool's attacking third passes before the goal? 43 of 60, 71.7% accuracy. After the goal? 60 of 75, 80% accuracy. 0.83 completed passes per minute prior, 1.5 after.

Minutes per shot? 7.4 before Sunderland's goal, 5.0 after Sunderland's goal. Minutes per chance created? 13.0 before Sunderland's goal, 10.0 after Sunderland's goal.

Unlike against Stoke, Villa, United, or Swansea, Liverpool weren't content to simply protect a one-goal lead, they went hunting for more. It limited Sunderland's opportunities for an equalizer, and eventually led to the game killing third.

It was interesting to see how equal Liverpool's passing distribution was. No one player dominated the ball. Skrtel, the deepest of the three-man defense, attempted the fewest passes of any outfield starter with 24, but everyone else played between 33 and 49 passes, an incredibly small range considering the disparities we've seen before. That's both good and bad. It's good to see Liverpool spreading the ball well, getting everyone involved. It's bad that Liverpool's two central midfielders didn't control possession like we've seen them do in previous matches.

Welcome back, Luis Suarez. It's no surprise that Liverpool took its second-most shots of the season in his return, with 15 (behind only the 25 against Stoke), and that Suarez was responsible for almost half of them. Meanwhile, Sturridge attempted just one shot, which he scored with, but set up both of Suarez's goals. However, Suarez failed to create a single chance for just the 12th time in his 78 league appearances for Liverpool.

13 of Liverpool's 15 shots came from the middle of the pitch. Yes, seven of those 13 were outside the box, where there's always a lower chance of scoring, but it's good to see Liverpool taking higher percentage shots compared to the vastly more speculative efforts we saw last season, especially with Suarez back on the pitch.

23 opposition shots are the most that Liverpool have allowed since Rodgers took over, and probably longer. The previous high under Rodgers was 19 in the 2-2 draw at Arsenal last January. Liverpool's opponents averaged 11.4 shots per match last season; it's up to 15.3 shots per match this season. However, Liverpool also allowed 1.13 goals per game last season. That's down 0.67 goals per game this season. I'll probably do a bit more research on this later this week, but my initial assumption is that more opposition shots are coming from outside the box. Also, a fair bit of credit probably goes to Simon Mignolet.

29 September 2013

Liverpool 3-1 Sunderland

Sturridge 28'
Suarez 36' 89'
Giaccherini 52'

So who wants to cite the 'Liverpool win more matches when Suarez doesn't start' statistic that's been doing the rounds? Lies, damned lies…

As in the previous matches, Liverpool weren't great, Liverpool weren't especially fluent, and the link between midfield and attack remained pretty much nonexistent. Sunderland took more shots, played more attacking third passes, and pressured effectively until fatigue set in late in the second half, making sure that the ball spent more time in Liverpool's half.

But Suarez's goals and Suarez's combination play with Sturridge made sure that Liverpool won because Suarez makes Liverpool's counter-attack immeasurably better. Three league goals for the first time this season, the first second-half goal of the season. It really is no coincidence those happened in Suarez's first league game after his suspension.

Liverpool's opener came from a set play, the subsequent two from lightning counters. Sturridge's goal was slightly fortunate, directing Gerrard's corner past Larsson on the line and into the net with his arm. Both counter-attacks were glorious: Gerrard's long pass and Sturridge's wonderful control leading to the first, Mignolet's quick distribution and Suarez and Sturridge's combination play leading to the second.

But in between, Liverpool were often pinned back, partly by design, partly due to formation. Again lining up in the 3-4-1-2 we saw against United, Liverpool got bodies back in defense and looked to counter quickly, but there was still little coordination between defense and attack, little of the patient passing we became used to last season. Lucas and Gerrard were often over-run by the Larsson/Ki/Cattermole trio, and as in every match we've seen so far, Liverpool's opponent pressed effectively to deny the opportunity to build from the back. It really is no coincidence Liverpool had better chances – and that Liverpool scored – when bypassing the midfield.

Individually, neither midfielder played badly. Gerrard's glorious long range pass set up Liverpool's second, his set plays constantly threatened, and he did get forward more often than in previous matches. Lucas was again crucial in defense, with five tackles and three interceptions, completing 90% of his passes. It's the partnership, the way they play together, which has become so concerning.

And it's a good thing that Liverpool impressed on counter-attacks and set plays because Liverpool rarely looked like scoring from possession-based open play. In fact, I'm struggling to think of any good opportunity which came from one of those situations. Skrtel had an early goal ruled out for offside from a Gerrard free kick, Suarez chested down and shot wide from a Gerrard corner, Westwood saved Moses' blast after a Gerrard free kick and then denied Toure's rocket after the defender won the ball in Sunderland's half. Liverpool were utterly reliant on set plays and transitional play, and not for the first time. I don't know the answer with Allen and Coutinho injured and Henderson needed at right wing-back, but I do know that the question about Liverpool's midfield needs to be asked.

At least the formation did its job by limiting Sunderland's ability to punish Liverpool.

24 tackles, 54 clearances, nine blocks, seven interceptions, six blocked crosses. Aside from one shot spilled by Mignolet, where no defender reacted to a possible rebound – probably because every single person in the universe expected Mignolet to smother, as he's smothered pretty much everything else – Liverpool's defensive shell again worked excellently. Toure and Sakho were especially impressive, doing well to blunt Altidore's burly effectiveness.

23 shots was Sunderland's highest total in nearly two years. But 15 of them came from outside the box, only five were on target. Just three of those 15 shots from outside the box forced Mignolet into action. Yes, one led to Sunderland's lone goal, but Liverpool's last season demonstrated that taking lots and lots of shots doesn't necessarily translate to lots and lots of goals, especially if most of those shots come from long range. Sunderland's shooting accuracy was 21.7%. Liverpool's was 40%. None of Liverpool's three goals came from further than 10 yards out.

This is the fourth match in a row where Sunderland's conceded three goals. Today's margin of defeat is marginally unfair on the home side's effort and play, but that's still quite the auspicious streak.

Liverpool will face tighter defenses and Liverpool will face better midfields who press even more effectively. While today saw an improved performance in most regards, and Suarez does make a massive difference to Liverpool's competence in attack, there are still some glaring problems to fix.

To be fair, they're glaring problems to fix with Liverpool sat in second place. Which remains an awful lot better than the alternative.

28 September 2013

Liverpool at Sunderland 09.29.13

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.02.13
1-1 (h) 09.15.12
0-1 Sunderland (a) 03.10.12
1-1 (h) 08.13.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 United (a); 0-1 Southampton (h); 2-2 Swansea (a)
Sunderland: 2-0 Peterborough (h); 0-3 West Brom (a); 1-3 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sturridge 3; Moses 1
Sunderland: Fletcher, Gardner, Giaccherini 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Sakho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Enrique
Sturridge Suarez

From unbeaten in five to winless in three. Crisis! Crisis! That's how quickly narratives can change.

Liverpool's XI should be fairly close to Wednesday's, if not exactly the same. The bigger question is whether Liverpool will play the same 3-4-1-2 system or the more usual 4-2-3-1.

Yes, I still worry about players' fitness after three matches in eight days, especially in regards to Gerrard and Sturridge. But unless forced, Rodgers has been reticent to leave key players out, especially Liverpool's captain and Liverpool's main (often sole) goal-scorer.

All told, except for one set play, Liverpool's 3-4-1-2 system worked well: creating chances, managing possession, and completing passes at a better rate than against any opposition this season save Stoke, despite playing against United at Old Trafford, even if it was a largely second-string United. I;d like to see it get a second chance, a chance to win a match if it Liverpool can actually convert its chances. Sunderland's 4-2-3-1 system, often with inverted wingers in the attacking line of three and central midfielders out of position at full-back, seems to fit Liverpool's three-at-the-back formation as well.

One possible change is that Daniel Agger may be fit. Emphasis, sadly, is on the "may," no matter his losing Lovren for Southampton's winner last week. But if Agger is fit, does he replace Skrtel or Sakho, or does Liverpool revert to a four-man defense? Or would it be both? Given that Skrtel's still mistake-prone – when he's good, he's good, but when he's bad, he's damagingly bad – it'd almost certainly be Sakho that's preferred in the middle of the three-man defense, the best in the air of Liverpool's four center-backs. A four-man defense could feature Toure at either center-back or right-back, or Skrtel and Sakho or Sakho and Agger as center-backs. In attack, it'd most likely be Suarez as the #10 with Henderson and Moses wide.

Sunderland, still without a permanent manager after firing Di Canio a week ago, will again have Kevin Ball as caretaker. Which makes it harder to predict either lineup or form. And will there be a "new" manager bounce? This will be Ball's second caretaker stint at the club, in charge for two months at the end of 2005-06, when Sunderland were relegated with a then record-low of 15 points that season.

The Mackems have just taken just one point from the five matches this season, an away draw at Southampton. A side that Liverpool failed to beat, failed to score against, pretty much failed to even threaten to score against. And Sunderland got that point by doing what Liverpool tried but were unable to do: getting the early goal, then holding Southampton at bay. Well, at least until the 88th minute, when a Southampton center back popped up on a set play. Which may sound familiar. Sunderland have conceded in every match this season: once against Fulham and Southampton and then three in each of the last three matches, against Palace, Arsenal, and West Brom.

Steven Fletcher is out with a similar shoulder injury as Coutinho, while Wes Brown is also a confirmed absence. Celustka, O'Shea, and Dossena are questionable, but should be available. Ball used a full-strength lineup in Tuesday's League Cup win over Peterborough, which gives us a best guess for Sunday's XI. Westwood; Gardner, Cuellar, O'Shea, Colback; Cattermole, Ki; Johnson, Giaccherini, Larsson; Altidore. Like Liverpool against Southampton, neither of Sunderland's fullbacks would be actual fullbacks; both Gardner and Colback are midfielders by trade, even if they've often been used in these positions over the last few months. Giaccherini was outstanding as the #10, albeit against a League One side.

Traveling to the bottom-placed side in the division, the only side without a win and the only side without a permanent manager, gives Liverpool a chance to change the narrative. Liverpool won 3-0 at the Stadium of Light last season, easily swatting Sunderland aside, an attacking masterclass from Luis Suarez. Soon enough, with incredibly difficult fixtures to come beginning in November, Liverpool will have fewer and fewer opportunities to change that narrative.

25 September 2013

Liverpool 0-1 Manchester United

Chicharito 46'

Now that's more like it.

More passes and possession than United even though the match was at Old Trafford, just one less shot, Liverpool's highest pass accuracy of the season (83.3%), and Liverpool's lowest shooting accuracy of the season other than the 1-0 win at Villa, when Liverpool put just one of five shots on target but scored with that one. All in all, Liverpool had the better chances, but also cannoned two shots off the woodwork.

Oh, and Liverpool lost, to a solitary goal, because Liverpool's marking broke down on one of United's seven corners.

Yep. Just like old times.

It took Liverpool 15-20 minutes to find its feet in an unfamiliar formation. To my chagrin, Rodgers used Liverpool's strongest line-up, but Rodgers also used 3-4-1-2, with Toure, Skrtel, and Sakho in defense, Lucas and Gerrard as a double pivot, Henderson and Enrique as wing backs, and Moses roaming dangerously in the hole with Sturridge and Suarez up front, but with the front three rotating threateningly.

Both sides had spells of pressure, but neither side carved out any outstanding openings, with both defenses doing just enough through last ditch blocks and tackles from both back lines.

This was Liverpool's average position just before halftime:

It boded well for the second half, even though Liverpool haven't scored a second half goal when behind or level since twice equalizing against Chelsea in mid-April. Incidentally, the last match prior to Suarez's ten-match suspension.

Well, boded well until this.

Why does Gerrard move towards the ball, even though there is no United player in the vicinity, into a zone already covered by Lucas? He just totally misjudges the flight of the corner, and it's not as if he hasn't seen more than a few corners in his day. More damaging, what is going through Jose Enrique's head? Well, besides "FIFA 14, FIFA 14, how can I prank Iago Aspas next, FIFA 14."

Enrique's hoping that Gerrard will cover Chicharito after the striker eluded him, eluded him way too easily, but Gerrard's got absolutely no clue that he's there. Individual breakdowns, even if it's different individuals, have punished Liverpool on set plays far too often.

That's the third goal that an opponent has scored from a set play in this young season. Liverpool have only conceded six in total. 50%. In case you'd forgotten – or repressed it – 28% of Liverpool's goals conceded in all competitions came from set plays last season, 24% the season before.

Ugh. Just ugh. That it was just about the first action of the second half was a kick to the stomach that Liverpool just couldn't recover from, despite Liverpool as the better side for most of the second 45 minutes, despite those two strikes off the goal frame – especially Suarez's deflected free kick – and excellent chances for Henderson and Moses: the first placed just wide, the second wonderfully saved by De Gea.

As feared, Suarez looked rusty, Gerrard and Sturridge looked fatigued. The former will improve with match fitness, but I fear the latter won't get much chance to rest, and it'll be on the medical staff and training regime to protect those key players. Both looked wholly gassed by the hour mark.

Yes, I'm still slightly annoyed that Rodgers played a full-strength line-up, but I do understand it. Dalglish did similar in his two FA cup ties against United in '10-11 and '11-12, as did Benitez in 2005-06. Yes, the FA Cup is a different competition than the League Cup, but it's hard to overestimate the pressure on Liverpool managers going into this fixture. The Evil Empire makes it more than a cup game, as much as I'd like it to just be a cup game.

It was reassuring to see Rodgers experiment with the formation, if not the line-up, attempting to remedy the possession and passing problems we've seen so far this season. Toure, Sakho, and Skrtel did outstandingly as a back three, and both Henderson and Enrique did well as wing backs – despite the latter's egregious brain fart on United's winner. Sturridge, Suarez, and Moses' movement drips with future potential once the three become more used to the others' runs. But now Liverpool's out of this competition, and the chance to experiment, with either formation or personnel has massively decreased.

I'm tempted to agree with that. There are still obvious problems with the side: set play marking, the connection between midfield and attack, the final ball in the final third, and a reliance on Sturridge and now Suarez to score.

But despite the result, there were still enough positives to restrain over the top criticism. I'd far rather a third round League Cup loss to the Mancs after beating them in the league, and I'm sure they'd rather the reverse to what they've achieved.

24 September 2013

Liverpool at Manchester United 09.25.13

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.13
1-2 United (a) 01.13.12
1-2 United (h) 09.23.12
1-2 United (a) 02.11.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Southampton (h); 2-2 Swansea (a); 1-0 United (h)
United: 1-4 City (a); 4-2 Leverkusen (h); 2-0 Palace (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sturridge 6; Henderson, Moses, Sterling 1
United: van Persie 6; Rooney 4; Welbeck 2; Valencia 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Toure Sakho Enrique
Henderson Lucas
Sterling Alberto Moses

The same old debate – should Rodgers play the first team or use a mix of reserves and fringe players – exacerbated by Liverpool having to face the Evil Empire.

Precedent suggests that Rodgers will play a fairly full strength line-up, injuries permitting, with one or two possible changes. My hope is that the few changes include Sturridge and Gerrard, at the very least. They're most in need of rest, whether due to previous injuries (Sturridge) or age and fatigue (Gerrard). They're two that Liverpool cannot live without going forward, especially with Coutinho out for the next few weeks. But we all know that dropping Liverpool's talismanic captain in a match against the hated Mancs probably isn't happening, form and fitness be damned. Sigh.

Despite the constant cup lineup uncertainty, there's one player whose name you can write in pen. Luis Suarez will start, despite Rodgers slightly playing coy in the pre-match press conference. And not a moment too soon. Hopefully he'll replace Sturridge up front, his preferred position and allowing Sturridge a match off. Make Liverpool reliant on someone else's goals for a change.

Otherwise, your guess is probably as good as mine. The above lineup is more my preference than the usual educated guess. Maybe because I don't want to contemplate the educated guess, which would look something like Mignolet; Wisdom, Toure, Sakho, Enrique; Gerrard, Lucas; Henderson, Suarez, Moses; Sturridge. Not enough change. Too much of the same concerns voiced in the post-Southampton eulogies.

I'd rather Kelly than Wisdom if fit, Toure rather than Skrtel if fit. Sakho pretty much has to start with Agger absent. Enrique should be available after being relegated to a substitute appearance on Saturday. Maybe both Henderson and Allen start in midfield if Allen's finally available, allowing Lucas a modicum of rest as well. Maybe Henderson, Lucas, and Allen all start in midfield if Allen's finally available. With Coutinho out for a long stretch, we need to see Luis Alberto get opportunities, and even though tomorrow's match is at Old Trafford, tomorrow's match is still a third round League Cup tie. Better sooner than later, better now than in the league. I want to like Iago Aspas, I still want to think he'll succeed, but Rodgers simply cannot use him as the #10 again. It hasn't looked like working for a second.

Manchester United, on the other hand, seemingly have to play a strong lineup. Although given the strength of their squad, Moyes or no Moyes, they can still rotate a fair few faces and still play a strong lineup. But the loss to Liverpool in the league a couple of weeks ago and humiliation by City on Sunday means that Moyes needs wins and Moyes needs them now.

Van Persie will miss out due to the groin injury that kept him out of the Manchester Derby, and United will undoubtedly make a few changes from the previous last starting XI. Their squad is still a deep squad, after all. Ferdinand's likely to be left out due to his age and fatigue, Lindegaard will probably continue to get cup matches, and we might even finally get a Kagawa sighting. I'd except United's XI to look something like Lindegaard; Smalling, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Fellaini, Carrick; Nani, Rooney, Kagawa; Chicharito.

If this were any other opponent, the cries for starting a weaker Liverpool XI would be even louder. That it's Manchester United, at Old Trafford, means that Rodgers is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Lose with a weaker lineup, and Rodgers isn't taking the enemy seriously. Lose with a stronger lineup, and it could not only harm confidence, but Liverpool's league chances as well.

Forget who Liverpool are playing tomorrow, as hard as that is. As said in Monday's match infographic and as said even better by Ted Knutson on StatsBomb, Liverpool – especially in attack – have gone away from the tactics which led to last season's few successes. We simply shouldn't, can't see more of the same tomorrow, even if "the same" is what led to the narrow 1-0 win over United three weeks ago. Liverpool need to focus on getting back to Liverpool's style of play, to focus on improving on what we've seen so far this season. That's seemingly best served by rotating a handful of key players, as well as the very welcomed return of Suarez.

Tomorrow is a third round League Cup tie, no more, no less. Liverpool should want to win every game, play to win every game, but it's still a third round League Cup tie.

23 September 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Southampton

Previous Match Infographics: Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Last season, Liverpool averaged 19.4 shots per match. This season, it's 12.6 per match, heavily skewed by the 25 taken against Stoke. Liverpool took 19.8 shots in the same five fixtures last season: 23 against Southampton, 21 at Swansea, 14 against United, 23 at Villa, and 18 against Stoke.

The 2012-13 version of Liverpool took more shots than any other Premier League side, attempting 58 more than the next closest side (Tottenham), an average of a shot-and-a-half more per game. No matter last season's numerous, numerous frustrations and failings, matches like Saturday's make you miss last season's Liverpool. You can't score if you don't (or can't) shoot.

However, at least Liverpool are putting a higher percentage of shots on target. Liverpool's shot accuracy was 31.4% last season. In these five fixtures, Liverpool put 32.3% of its shots were on target, scoring four goals. That percentage has risen 42.9% this season, resulting in one extra goal. And Liverpool are two points better off that the eight they earned in these fixtures last season.

I suspect we'll see that shot total rise, and Liverpool's shot accuracy fall, with Suarez returning to the side.

The above exercise holds true for Liverpool's passing as well, both overall and in the attacking third as well as in chances created. Liverpool averaged 437 completed passes and 521 attempted passes last season, a pass accuracy of 84.2%. They've surpassed that total for completed passes just once, at Villa, and for attempted passes twice: at Villa and against Stoke. Liverpool haven't hit 84.2% pass accuracy yet this season; the highest was 83.1% against Swansea, dropping into the 70s against both United and Southampton.

Liverpool averaged 114.8 completed and 158.8 attempted attacking third passes per match last season. They've beaten that total just once this season, in the first match against Stoke, which is also the only match where they've bettered last season's 72.3% final third pass accuracy. Liverpool averaged 14.4 chances created last season, but only 8.6 this season, again heavily skewed by the total against Stoke (18).

Missing Suarez, then Johnson, and now Coutinho, goes some way in explaining the change in both style and statistics, especially in attack. But it doesn't explain everything; Suarez missed five matches through suspension last season, Johnson missed a couple due to injury, and Coutinho didn't make his first appearance until mid-February. Those absences are not a complete answer for why this season's Liverpool has been so radically different than last season's. The second halves against Stoke, Villa, and United, and the entire match against Swansea, are evidence enough that there have been tactical choices behind the shift in style.

Yes, last season's Liverpool had numerous problems, but the metrics were moving in the right direction, even after Suarez's suspension. There has to be some happy medium. Liverpool desperately need to find a way to meld last season's attacking abilities with this season's newfound defensive solidity (well, the defensive solidity when all of Liverpool's first-choice defenders are available). Because Southampton's winning goal aptly demonstrates that it takes just one moment to ruin what otherwise was a decent defensive performance, allowing Southampton just four shots on target from eight chances created.

Yesterday's match was also notable for Liverpool's tactics in the final third. Give the ball to an attacker – usually Moses, Sturridge, Toure, Sterling or Henderson, in that order – and hope that they can dribble past a Southampton defender. Just as often as not, they could not, successful on 24 of 44 attempted dribbles, with 36 of those in Southampton's half but successful with just 18. According to Opta, it was the most take-ons attempted by a Premier League side since Opta began tracking the stat in 2006. Moses led the way with 15 attempted, successful with just six; Toure and Sturridge both completed five of eight. "Pass and move" without the pass. Which goes some way in explaining Southampton's dramatically high number of tackles.

Liverpool attempted 20.6 dribbles per match last season (successful with 9.9 per match), still second-highest in the league after Arsenal – Luis Suarez did play a majority of matches after all – but that's still nowhere near yesterday's total.

Finally, another word on Mignolet's passing. We covered this fairly thoroughly in the match review, and I don't want to pile on the man who's arguably been Liverpool's best player through the first five matches, but I'd like to highlight Bass Tuned To Red's take on the situation. The short version: it's getting worse – more back passes, long passes, and losses of possession against United, Swansea, and Southampton compared to Stoke and Villa – as teams realize that pressing Liverpool leads to profit. I also wholly agree with his (and Mihail Vladimirov's) belief that Liverpool's midfielders need to do a much better job of giving Mignolet options for the short pass. Mignolet completed just two passes to Lucas on Saturday, and none to Gerrard. But as also said in Saturday's match review, Liverpool's central midfielders need to do a better job in lots of areas.

21 September 2013

Liverpool 0-1 Southampton

Lovren 54'

That was abysmal. Absolutely abysmal.

You name it, it was not good. Individual players? Yep, especially Gerrard, but pretty much all involved in all facets. Tactics? Most definitely, especially starting two center-backs at full-back. The referee? Sure, why not; Liverpool should have gotten a first half penalty, which could well have made this a very different game, but it's not as if that Liverpool performance merited any points.

We hadn't seen Liverpool play that badly since, well, Liverpool last played Southampton. Hmm. Maybe that's not a coincidence.

Once again, no first half goal, then no Liverpool goal. As Dan Kennett astutely noted at halftime, Liverpool won just one of eight matches last season when 0-0 at the break, drawing five and losing twice, the only victory at Anfield against relegated Wigan.

Like against Stoke, Villa, United, and Swansea, Liverpool rarely if ever – maybe once – looked capable of scoring in the second half. Unlike in the first three matches, Liverpool needed to score because unlike in the first four matches, Liverpool wholly failed to score in the first half.

I've often defended Rodgers' decisions after disappointing results. Not today. Yes, the selection was partly forced by injuries, including needing to manage Jose Enrique's time on the pitch because of this week's three fixtures. The only possible explanation for starting a back four full of center-backs was to try to cancel out Southampton's aerial ability, especially on set plays, and the final score proves how well that worked out.

Sakho and Toure added nothing in attack. Nothing. And with Liverpool marginally better than Southampton in the first half, Liverpool desperately needed the help that Johnson and Enrique can add in attack, despite each's flaws. This is what Sakho and Toure contributed before Rodgers finally began to reconfigure the defense. Three, maybe four, passes in dangerous positions, out of the 57 played by the two defenders. Ugh. In retrospect, Kelly or Henderson would have been much better options, which Rodgers ultimately realized with his second half substitutions. Agger, still carrying the knock which kept him out last week but not apparently making it worse, was replaced by Enrique in the 57th, then Skrtel by Luis Alberto in the 72nd, as Liverpool's two starting full-backs shifted to center-back as Liverpool chased the game. I'd like to know the last time a team withdrew its two center-backs when neither picked up an injury.

With Sterling also replacing Aspas at halftime, Liverpool continued to try to put increasing pressure on Southampton's goal. "Try" being the key word; "succeeding" being a word that's completely inappropriate. But thanks to incorrect decisions, heavy touches, and a couple of excellent stops by Southampton defenders, Liverpool didn't look likely to find the equalizer, more frustrated and impatient than fluent and threatening as the clock wound down. Other than Liverpool's 33rd minute penalty shout, when Sturridge was clearly felled by Lovren at the top of the box, Liverpool were mostly limited to shots from distance, the best being two free kicks from Gerrard saved by Boruc.

Every team in the league knows to press Liverpool in its defensive third – we are going to see similar time and time again this season, and Rodgers needs to teach his team to adjust – and Southampton are already one of the best in the division at doing so. Closing down from Southampton's front four forced Mignolet to try to pass it long far too often, and he completed just three of 20 attempted long passes. 17 times Liverpool lost possession, 17 times that Liverpool had to retreat and regroup. But even though I'll criticize Mignolet's passing, it's worth remembering that Liverpool would probably have five points rather than 10 without the Belgian, most likely drawing with Stoke and Villa and losing to Swansea.

Liverpool were broken in attack with Suarez, Coutinho, and both starting full-backs absent and Liverpool were broken at the back because of changes to the defense and Southampton's pressing. That pressing, combined with some jaw-dropping Liverpool decision-making, is also what resulted in Southampton's winner.

Make no mistake, the away side wasn't incredibly inspiring either. They certainly were nowhere near as coherent as the side Liverpool lost to in March, although that was admittedly at St Mary's rather than Anfield. On the whole, Liverpool mostly contained Southampton, although Mignolet had to make three brilliant saves in quick succession to keep the scoreline at 0-1. But that containment totally broke down once, and it was entirely of Liverpool's own making. Unable to pass the ball out of defense, Skrtel stupidly conceded possession when trying to turn into space that wasn't there. Southampton quickly won a corner, and Lovren eluded Agger far too cheaply to head in Lallana's delivery, with Gerrard unable to clear from the goal line.

Southampton's three previous goals this season had come from two set plays and a penalty, so its not as if Liverpool were caught unaware. Liverpool just couldn't cope once, failing on just one of Southampton's 12 set plays. But once was enough to drop all three points.

No one gets away without censure, Rodgers most of all for tactical and personnel decisions, even if the substitutions made a certain amount of sense. But Liverpool were also let down by individual players, none more than Liverpool's captain. As against Swansea, Liverpool's midfield simply failed to function, despite having the edge in possession. That Gerrard and Lucas were outnumbered against Swansea partly excuses Monday's performance. There's far less of an excuse today. It's heresy, but Liverpool's captain needs a game off. We need to see if Henderson/Lucas or Allen/Lucas can form a more effective pairing because this pairing has been closer to the opposite of effective.

Gerrard's dismal performance was most notable because he's Gerrard; he's saved Liverpool time and time and time again, and it's still surprising when he hinders more than he helps. It's not as if anyone besides Mignolet and maybe Lucas come away with few complaints and glares in their general direction. Skrtel Skrtel-ing ultimately led to the first goal, Agger was beaten too easily on the set play, both Toure and Sakho demonstrated that they're not fullbacks. Moses looked Liverpool's most dangerous attacker – similar to being named the handsomest man in Stoke – but both he and Sturridge lost possession in attack too often, were caught offside too often, made the wrong decision to pass or shoot the few times they almost broke through too often. Aspas was irrelevant again, but Henderson was little better when used centrally before Luis Alberto came on.

Like against Swansea, this should be a wake-up call. The law of averages obviously had to set in sooner or later, and it's been sooner. Liverpool were never going to hold on to fortunate 1-0 wins in every match. Despite the disconnect at both ends of the pitch, despite the multiple changes in personnel, this was still marginally more like last season's side than the possession-conceding, deep-sitting side was saw in the second half of the first three fixtures and almost all of Monday's match.

But it still needs to improve, dramatically, in almost all aspects of its play. Relying on a single playmaker has been a recipe for disaster before, but you have to hope that performances will improve as Suarez returns to the fold, his suspension finally fully served. Despite the fact that Liverpool had been unbeaten in the first nine matches of his suspension, without Coutinho, today's match proved that he's still very much needed.

20 September 2013

Liverpool v Southampton 09.21.13

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Southampton (a) 03.16.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.01.12
2-0 Southampton (a) 01.22.05
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.28.04

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Swansea (a); 1-0 United (h); 4-2 Notts County aet (h)
Southampton: 0-0 West Ham (h); 0-1 Norwich (a); 5-1 Barnsley (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sturridge 4; Moses 1
Southampton: Fonte, Lambert 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Sakho Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Henderson Aspas Moses

Brendan Rodgers has a few tough decisions to make, all due to injuries to key Liverpool players. Johnson and Coutinho, both large cogs in the Liverpool machine, are assuredly out for the next six or so weeks. Agger's still doubtful after picking up a knock in training last week. With Suarez suspended for one more match, that's four certain starters, four of Liverpool's best players, absent. That rarely, if ever, happened last season; maybe the last match against QPR counts, with Suarez, Gerrard, Agger, and Allen missing, but that match otherwise counted for little.

Coutinho, Liverpool's playmaker and attacking epicenter, will obviously be the biggest loss, the toughest to replace. Aspas, seems the most likely, used in the same manner as against he was Stoke and Villa when Coutinho played on the left, even though the Spaniard struggled to make an impact in both matches. Luis Alberto would be a gamble – a very enticing gamble, but very much a gamble. He's seemingly the most like-for-like replacement, but he's incredibly raw, unfamiliar with the pace and strength of the English game, despite his obvious potential, and both of Southampton's holding midfielders – Schneiderlin and Wanyama – will be difficult opponents, able to deny time and space to the cleverest, quickest attackers.

Personally, I'd prefer Henderson used centrally with Aspas on the right. Henderson's in excellent form, and his pressing and work rate could be crucial to disrupting Schneiderlin and Wanyama's ability to start Southampton attacks. Aspas losing possession and flitting in and out of the game would seemingly harm Liverpool less if he's used on the flank, and he'd be better able to run at a full-back to cut in on his much, much strong left foot than against a center-back and holding midfielder. This change also seems even more apropos if we're going to see a more defensively dependable player at right-back in Johnson's absence (no offense to Andre Wisdom).

There are three, possibly four, options in lieu of Johnson at right back: Toure, Wisdom, Kelly, or even Henderson. With Toure only fit enough for a substitute appearance last weekend and Kelly needing more time with the u21s to find match fitness, Wisdom got the nod against Swansea to mixed results. Kelly played well at times in Tuesday's u21 match against Sunderland, but I expect Toure to be the choice: reliable, versatile, experienced, and with the pace to join the attack if need be, although Enrique would obviously bomb forward far more often on the opposite flank. Rodgers' system often keeps one fullback back against threatening opposition, with Johnson and Enrique usually taking turns.

Revealingly, Agger's not to be found in the Liverpool Echo's spread of training pictures. If the vice captain's still injured, Skrtel and Sakho – as against Swansea – appear the most likely pairing, but Toure could well replace the Slovakian if Rodgers trusts either Wisdom or Kelly at right-back. Both Lambert and Osvaldo are quite good in the air, which means that having the physical presence of Toure, Skrtel, and Sakho could be beneficial tomorrow.

No team troubled Liverpool more in the last few months than Pochettino's Southampton, the last side to beat Liverpool, way back in mid-March, 14 matches ago. They beat Liverpool at its own possession game – well, more accurately, last season's possession game – and the fluid front four tore holes through Liverpool's defense both on the counter-attack and with patient build-up.

With the acquisition of Dani Osvaldo, Southampton's attacking set-up has become slightly different, more a 4-2-2-2 when both Lambert and Osvaldo play rather than last season's 4-2-3-1. Both formations are possibilities tomorrow. Lambert and Osvaldo started the last two matches, but Southampton failed to score in both, losing 0-1 at Norwich and drawing 0-0 against West Ham. Which makes me think Pochettino's more likely to start with last season's preferred formation, using either Lambert or Osvaldo – most likely the Englishman – with Lallana, Rodriguez, and Ward-Prowse behind the lone striker. Otherwise, the Saints' XI seems fairly set in stone: Boruc in goal; a back four of Clyne/Chambers, Fonte, Lovren, and Shaw; and Schneiderlin and Wanyama in midfield.

Like Liverpool, all of Southampton's matches have been incredibly narrow, featuring few goals. Southampton's both scored twice and conceded twice, winning 1-0 at West Brom and drawing 1-1 with Sunderland prior to the previously mentioned loss and draw in the last two league matches. Dejan Lovren has been an excellent addition to the defense. Brilliant left-back prospect Luke Shaw has also recovered from an injury against West Ham and should return to the line-up tomorrow; his ability going forward is another reason why I think Rodgers will start with Toure at right-back.

Southampton's style and ability will test Liverpool tomorrow. More specifically, test whether Liverpool's lack of possession in the first four matches, especially in the second half, was a small sample size fluke or a discernible trend and tactic. With a week since the previous match, fitness and stamina concerns shouldn't be as evident as they were after the international break or the midweek cup match.

If Liverpool allow Southampton time and space to cut them apart, Southampton will most likely cut them apart, no matter how Lambert, Osvaldo et al have struggled to find the net; how thoroughly Liverpool's defense has throttled Stoke, Villa, and United; or how many times Mignolet has denied opposition strikers. And as against Swansea, Liverpool's defense will most likely be unfamiliar and somewhat makeshift, even if it's the same back four that featured in South Wales.

Liverpool are at home, where they're almost always better able to keep the ball. Liverpool will need to keep the ball tomorrow.

17 September 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Swansea

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

It's no exaggeration to suggest that Coutinho's injury changed the game. Yes, Liverpool have developed a nasty habit of being pushed back in the second half no matter personnel or opposition. Yes, Liverpool have still failed to score after the 37th minute in any league match this season. Yes, Liverpool had gotten lucky with both of their goals. Still, his exit surely exacerbated the decline.

Liverpool created seven chances before the Brazilian went off in the 55th minute – including two outstanding opportunities in the 25th and 53rd minutes – and none after. The side took 10 shots prior but just two after, both speculative at best, despite having conceded an equalizer. Liverpool's passing accuracy before Coutinho's injury was 85% and 79% after, averaging almost five successful passes per minute until the 55th minute, but less than three per minute after.

The attacking third passes tell the biggest, saddest story.

Yikes. Just yikes.

Coutinho, back in his preferred position, had been far more involved to that point than he'd been when deployed on the left in the first three matches. Despite playing less than two-thirds of the match, he completed more passes than in any of the previous fixtures. Even though he didn't record any created chances, he had played a larger part in building up Liverpool's decent attacks than any player not named Jonjo Shelvey. His ball retention and eye for a pass was crucial in Liverpool marginally out-possessing Swansea in the first half, crucial to keeping the home side from breaking through Liverpool's unfamiliar defense.

But even with Coutinho on the pitch, Swansea saw too much of the ball. Swansea's deeper midfielders – Britton, as well as Shelvey in the first half then de Guzman in the second – had far too much time and space, best demonstrated by all the passes Swansea registered in the center of the pitch prior to their second goal. Britton's 94 passes were the second-most by an opposition player since I've begun these infographics, only surpassed by Aaron Ramsey in Liverpool's 2-2 draw at Arsenal last January, the match where Liverpool had the least amount of possession since Rodgers took over. Shelvey rarely had the opportunity to play a full 90 minutes in this position in the league at Liverpool, but he never came close to attempting or completing that many passes in a match while at the club. Press. Someone please press the ball in the middle third. Which sounds like something I was screaming at the television during the second half of the previous three fixtures as well.

Still, I'm certain that Liverpool wouldn't have been so overwhelmed had Coutinho been able to stay on, desperately needing the outlet and cool head that the Brazilian can provide, something Iago Aspas couldn't or didn't provide. This, even more than than spoiling Liverpool's three-match winning streak, is why I'm so disappointed in the two points dropped. It seemingly could have been avoided had Ashley Williams not been so typically cynically brutish, had Coutinho not fallen so awkwardly after the challenge.

While I'm obviously quite hesitant to criticize him, another reason for Liverpool's inability to keep possession was Simon Mignolet. The Belgian's first four matches – especially those against Stoke and Villa – have been fairly strong evidence that a goalkeeper's shot-saving abilities are far, far more important than his distribution. Mignolet's made more saves than any other keeper in the league, having faced more shots than any other keeper in the league. Mignolet attempted more passes against Swansea than in the first three matches, more passes than against both Stoke and Villa combined. And barely 50% of them found a Liverpool player.

That's 15 times that Mignolet failed to keep possession, many when hoofing a low percentage long ball. Admittedly, his task was made even harder by Swansea's pressing in Liverpool's half. This is a marginal criticism when Liverpool are otherwise able to retain possession effectively and when Liverpool win. But it's a bigger problem when the team can't keep the ball for love or money, on the back foot for almost all of the second half. Again.

Finally, I'm amazed that Liverpool recorded just three interceptions. Liverpool had averaged 12.3 in the first three matches this season, averaged 13.8 per match last season. The lowest total we've seen since Rodgers took over had been eight. Yes, one of the three yesterday was by Victor Moses, directly leading to Liverpool's second goal. Still. I have no explanation why the total was so dramatically decreased. Sure, Swansea kept the ball very well, passed very accurately. Liverpool deployed a makeshift defense, and both Gerrard and Lucas were scrambling after Swansea's midfielders, especially after de Guzman came on. Maybe it's no more than an outlier, but baffling nonetheless.

16 September 2013

Liverpool 2-2 Swansea

Shelvey 2'
Sturridge 4'
Moses 36'
Michu 64'

I have always, always, always warned about facing former Liverpool players. This is why.

Today might have been the most Jonjo Shelvey match ever. Both comedy and farce, tragedy and triumph. A goal within two minutes, somehow finding a way through Liverpool's defense because he initially mis-kicked a volley, ghosting around Gerrard and Sakho, sending his first effort directly into a prone Skrtel but somehow in the perfect spot for a left-footed rebound. Then, three assists on the next three goals: two for Liverpool and one for Swansea. All that was missing was the red card. Instead, he only saw yellow for a fairly amusing tête-à-tête with Lucas early in the second half. There's really nothing you can say besides "That's so Jonjo."

Liverpool didn't have to wait long for the equalizer, again, thanks to the ex-Liverpool man. Within two minutes, with Liverpool piling forward, Shelvey played a crazy back pass under pressure from Henderson, straight to Sturridge, who unsurprisingly made no mistake with the finish. From ecstasy to horror, from hero to villain, within 90 seconds. That's so Jonjo.

The rest of the first half was Liverpool's, as we've become accustomed to. After holding a slight edge in possession following the equalizer, the dynamic Moses put Liverpool in front with ten minutes left in the half. Under no pressure in his own half, That's So Jonjo sent a pass straight to an open Moses, who charged at a retreating, out-of-position Swansea defense, creating space around Chico by shifting onto his stronger foot before blasting a shot from the top of the box

From there, Liverpool should have held on for the win. Even considering how standards and play have dropped in the second half in each of the last three fixtures, this Liverpool's rarely looked like giving back a lead once they've seized it. But not today. Swansea were utterly, totally, completely dominant after the interval. Two facets directly led to that see-saw: Laudrup replaced Dyer with de Guzman during the break, moving Shelvey into the front three, giving Swansea much more control in middle. 10 minutes later, a Stoke-like challenge from Williams on Coutinho forced the Brazilian off holding his shoulder, replaced by the ineffective Iago Aspas.

But that's little excuse for how outclassed Liverpool were over those 35-45 minutes, how easily Liverpool conceded possession, and how easily Liverpool conceded the equalizer. In the 64th minute, after Sturridge was caught offside chasing a hopeful punt from Enrique, Swansea passed around and through Liverpool's retreating midfield before Shelvey flawlessly headed down Britton's chip into the path of Michu, finished first time with Wisdom unable get in front of the shot. That's so Jonjo. And so Michu.

At least Liverpool never conceded a third, because it sure felt like Liverpool were bound and determined to concede a third. The final 25 minutes were all Swansea all the time. Liverpool took just one shot after that equalizer, an incredibly speculative Gerrard free kick. And Liverpool failed to create a single chance after Coutinho's injury.

Today's match had a lot of the first three fixtures in it. Play well enough in the first half and score an early goal, but get pushed deeper and deeper in the second half until you're hanging on by both finger and toenails. That was why a point seems so infuriating, even though a point keeps Liverpool ahead of the 19 other sides in the division. Yes, Liverpool scored twice, including the first league goal from a player not named Daniel Sturridge, but Liverpool also conceded twice, and fairly sloppily at that. Luck was bound to run out at some point. There's only so many times you can play Russian Roulette before finding the bullet.

Sure, there are excuses, some valid ones. Liverpool's defense could be described as makeshift at best, notably worse without both Agger and Johnson. One defender was making his debut, one's still a kid playing out of position, one's been out of favor for 10 months, and one's Jose Enrique. Wisdom looked unsteady throughout, finally subbed off for Toure after picking up a 66th minute yellow card. Sakho made some excellent tackles but is still finding his feet, overplaying on Swansea's first goal and too willing to recklessly dive in. And, it goes without saying that Liverpool's decline manifested most notably when Coutinho was forced off through injury, the victim of Ashley Williams' awkward barbarity.

Even more disappointing than the result was how bad Liverpool's midfield looked once Coutinho went off. Neither Lucas nor Gerrard blew the doors off in the first half, but without Coutinho, both were massively exposed, with the added "bonus" of being one of those days where Gerrard's usually finely tuned passing radar often seemed the opposite of finely tuned.

Second guessing Rodgers' substitutions has become a favored game in some corners of the internet, and it'll assuredly have been played today. In retrospect, Aspas for Coutinho made little sense, and was not what Liverpool needed. The side was already beginning to struggle to keep possession. Why not bring on Luis Alberto, who did so coolly – while also effectively pressing from the front – against both Notts County and in the last 10 minutes against United? Or move Henderson inside and shift Aspas out wide, where he can flit in and out of the game without hurting the side as much (although, admittedly, that would have put even more pressure on Wisdom). Why wasn't Allen even on the bench after Rodgers declared him fit in Friday's press conference? He'd also have been an excellent option to have. I like Iago Aspas. I think he'll eventually settle and turn into a valuable squad player. But he's struggled mightily in all five matches he's featured in.

Yes, yes. "Ay, here we are with problems at the top of the league." And there's admittedly some validity in that. Few predicted Liverpool would be unbeaten through its first four matches, let alone winning three of the four. Had you offered me that prior to the season, I'd have taken it laughing. Liverpool didn't take have 10 points until October 28 last season, after nine matches. The only time Liverpool took 10 points from four consecutive league matches in 2012-13 was in the last four matches of the campaign.

Sturridge is now just the ninth player in Premier League history to score in his sides opening four matches, the first Liverpool player to do so since John Aldridge in 1987 (yes, Liverpool won the title that season). Moses looked a handful on the left and scored an excellent debut goal before tiring in the second half. That signing allowed Coutinho to move back to his preferred position, and he was vastly improved compared to his performances against Stoke, Villa, and United in the first half. Henderson continued his much improved form. And aside from a couple of shaky moments, Sakho also impressed against tricky attackers, and will undoubtedly improve with time.

But top of league means little in the grand scheme of things when it's week four. And after Liverpool won its first three matches, even if all three were narrow wins, it's a disappointment to draw the fourth match when you had a lead with less than 30 minutes left.

And, yes, there are still concerns. Recurring concerns. Worrying concerns. About Liverpool's fitness with so many dismal second half performances, about Rodgers' in-game substitutions and tactical shifts, and certain personnel in certain positions.

"Ay, here we are with problems at the top of the league." Well, yes. But there are still 34 matches left. And if these problems continue, the stay at the top of the league will be a brief one.

14 September 2013

Liverpool at Swansea 09.16.13

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
5-0 Liverpool (h) 02.17.13
0-0 (a) 11.25.12
1-3 Swansea (h; League Cup) 10.31.12
0-1 Swansea (a) 05.13.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 United (h); 4-2 Notts County aet (h); 1-0 Villa (a)
Swansea: 2-0 West Brom (a); 1-2 Petrolul Ploiesti (a); 0-1 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sturridge 3
Swansea: Bony, Davies, Hernandez 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Liverpool's record with Oliver: 6W-4D-1L. Last season: 4W-1D, with 11 goals scored and 3 conceded. That lone loss came in Dalglish's first Premiership match in January 2011. I like Michael Oliver. Yes, I'm well aware this is a kiss of death and you might as well pencil in a Liverpool loss now.

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Toure Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Henderson Coutinho Moses

Stupid international breaks. It's been too long since we've had real football.

At least, this time the international break seemingly benefited Liverpool. Liverpool got to spend two weeks at the top of the table having beaten Manchester United before the respite, the only side to win all three of its league matches. Even if it means next to nothing at this point of the season, seeing Liverpool ahead of 19 other sides is still a massive confidence boost. Sturridge had time to recuperate from his thigh injury. The three deadline day signings had time to adjust to their new surroundings; Moses went away with Nigeria but both Sakho and Ilori stayed in Liverpool.

Okay. Maybe the international breaks aren't all that bad.

So, will any of those deadline day signings feature on Monday?

Victor Moses seems the most likely, even though he was the only one to play over the international break. And, being right-footed, he seems most likely to play on the left in Rodgers' system. Which would mean that Coutinho moves inside, with Aspas subsequently left out. Or, Henderson could make way with Aspas shifting to the right, although I'd vastly prefer Henderson keep his place considering his form over Liverpool's first four fixtures. If Sturridge isn't fit, Aspas will almost certainly start up front, with Moses, Coutinho, and Henderson behind him.

As Ilori's almost certainly one for the future, the other new signing who might feature is Mamadou Sakho. However, if Kolo Toure's recovered from his groin injury – which looks to be the case – he'll get the nod, allowing Sakho more time to adjust to Liverpool and Rodgers' system, and to train as the right-sided center back. Yes, competition for places is healthy. Yes, we can't rely on Agger staying as healthy as he did last season (*knocks furiously on wood* *cowers under desk*). But Agger, Liverpool's vice captain, is certainly odds on to retain his place as long as he's available. If Toure needs another week before full fitness, my guess is that Sakho starts ahead of Skrtel, but that's solely a guess, based more on wanting to see Liverpool's new toy than any tangible information.

Johnson's injury, out for the next month at best, with six weeks probably more likely, will necessitate Wisdom drafted into the side. Kelly's still not fully match fit. Henderson's versatility will probably see him get a game or two or more in the position as well, but I don't know if he'll be thrown in that deep end right away.

Otherwise, the team pretty much writes itself. Mignolet, Agger, Lucas, Gerrard, and Coutinho are guaranteed starters when fit; Enrique is as well as long as Cissokho's out or until Rodgers feels comfortable deploying Sakho at left-back, if that ever happens.

Despite taking just three points from their first three matches, Swansea are still very much a threat. A home loss to United and narrow away loss at Spurs were no surprise, and they rebounded by easily dispatching West Brom before the break.

However, Swansea will also be playing with one eye on midweek, traveling to Valencia on Thursday in the Europa League, but I doubt it'll affect their lineup that much. Maybe Laudrup will leave out one or two regulars – maybe, say, Pablo or Canas or de Guzman – but this won't be another 5-0 romp against Swansea's B-team before their League Cup final.

The biggest question appears to be the inclusion of Swansea's record signing, Wilfred Bony. The Ivorian has only started one of Swansea's three matches, two weeks ago at West Brom, used off the bench against both Tottenham and United. Bony also traveled to Cote d'Ivoire to play against Morocco during the break, if only used as a sub. I wouldn't be surprised if Laudrup's lineup replicated those against Spurs and United. Vorm; Rangel, Chico, Williams, Davies; Canas, Shelvey, de Guzman; Hernandez, Michu, Routledge. As always, I will mention the worry about former Liverpool players facing their old clubs, but let's hope that Shelvey continues to be Shelvey. That sounds meaner than I mean it to be, but he does have a history of playing worse when he's trying "too hard," trying to do too much too soon.

A few times last season after Liverpool had earned some good results in a row, the team disappointed in the next fixture: underwhelming and underperforming, seemingly convinced they'd be able to stroll to a win. 1-3 Aston Villa, 0-2 West Brom, 1-3 Southampton, just to name a few.

This seems a similar circumstance, with the added bonus of a two-week layoff since the high of beating United. Liverpool's results against Stoke, Villa, and United have helped demonstrate that this is a new season, is a new team. Doing similar at Swansea on Monday would further reinforce those notions.

Meta note: Like with the League Cup tie against Notts County, the review for Monday's match will be late. I *should* be able to watch the match live, albeit on my phone, despite having to travel for work on Monday. But the review won't be up until very, very late Monday night, more likely Tuesday morning, with the match infographic also delayed until Tuesday afternoon at the very earliest. Apologies in advance. Liverpool need to stop with these weekday matches please.

02 September 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Manchester United

Previous Match Infographics: Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

To preempt any comments: if it were up to me, yes, Agger would be credited with an assist. But Opta – via StatsZone, Squawka, and Who Scored – decided that Agger's header leading to Sturridge's goal was an attempted shot rather than a flick-on, and called it a blocked shot, giving Agger neither a chance created nor assist. Statistics! Anyway.

Yesterday saw the second-fewest Liverpool completed passes in a league match under Brendan Rodgers. Only the 2-2 draw at Everton had fewer, as Liverpool completed just 241 of 314. Yesterday's 76.25% pass accuracy was the third-lowest of Rodgers' tenure: only 3-2 Tottenham (75.1%) and 1-3 Southampton (74.5%) were lower last season. Liverpool also completed fewer final third passes than yesterday's 62 of 100 in just two matches: 2-2 at Arsenal and 1-3 at Southampton. Losing the passing and possession battle but winning the war should be just fine with everyone after the opposite happened so often in 2012-13, especially when facing opponents like yesterday's.

For the second time this season, if not the third, Liverpool won the match thanks to its defense after Sturridge provided the lone goal. That Liverpool made nearly twice as many successful tackles as United goes a long way in explaining how Liverpool kept a clean sheet, but these two chalkboards also help demonstrate just how thoroughly Liverpool were able to frustrate United.

Just six of 32 United crosses found a target, with only one – from a corner – leading to a chance. Just seven of 22 United dribbles beat a Liverpool defender, including only two of 14 in the final third. Liverpool attempted 40 clearances, including 15 headed clearances, and all were successful. Liverpool protected its box brilliantly, and that's not an adverb I use lightly.

Liverpool's average positions (from Who Scored) in the last three matches shows how much deeper the center-backs played yesterday.

That Agger's average position was deeper than Skrtel's yesterday suggests that the Dane knew he might have to cover in behind had van Persie or Welbeck able to outpace Skrtel. Thankfully, neither were able, which is a credit to Martin after how long he's been out of favor.

Liverpool's defending was especially impressive down its right flank.

Just one of United's successful dribbles came down that side, when Evra sprinted past Coutinho in the 76th minute, eventually leading to Nani's shot on goal. Just one open play cross found a target from that flank, Cleverley in injury time, with Liverpool successfully clearing the second ball, and it was the deepest cross that United attempted in the match. The other 11 crosses from that side of the pitch were either blocked, successfully cleared, or went out for a goal kick.

Liverpool only won 12 of 31 aerial duels in total, but prevailed in nine of the 14 which took place in Liverpool's half. The only aerial duel that United won in Liverpool's box was Chicharito in injury time, beating Enrique to the aforementioned Cleverley cross, which Liverpool subsequently successfully cleaned up. The other four duels which United won in Liverpool's half took place in non-threatening areas of the pitch.

As said after the Villa victory, it's as encouraging to see Liverpool grind out a defensive victory as seeing them coast through a high-scoring romp against sub-standard opponents. That Liverpool all-too-often conceded even when dominant, tossing away two or even three points, was one of last season's worst facets. It was especially disheartening in the matches against sides ahead of Liverpool in the table: four points to Manchester City, two points to Arsenal, two points to Everton, and three, if not six, points to Manchester United. So to do the same to United this season, even if Moyes' tactics marginally helped Liverpool accomplish the feat, is a massive confidence boost.

It's still incredibly early in the season, but we've seen this embryonic trend take place in all three of this season's league fixtures. That bodes quite well.

On Mamadou Sakho

So much for transfer inactivity. Oh, deadline day, you never (read: frequently) fail to impress.

Liverpool have made three deadline day signings – center-backs Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori on permanent deals, and winger Victor Moses on loan – but there's only one I feel comfortable writing about now. I may have something up on Moses tomorrow, but Sakho's by far the most interesting.

Even before Kolo Toure's injury, even before Skrtel's surprisingly competent return to form against United, Liverpool needed another senior center-back. Now they've got one. A very, very good one, and one who's still just 23 years of age.

Three things stand out from Sakho's aerial duels last season.

First, that he won an awful lot of them. 84 of 110, a 76.4% success rate. As a reminder, Agger won 115 of 188 (61.2%), Skrtel 72 of 103 (69.9%), Carragher 19 of 34 (55.9%), Johnson 66 of 115 (57.4%), and Enrique 13 of 34 (38.2%).

Second, that he was almost as impressive when defending PSG's penalty box, winning 14 of 19 (73.7%) inside the area. Which suggests that he's especially handy on set plays, as that's where a larger proportion of aerial duels inside the area come from. Which, as we're all well aware, is something that Liverpool desperately needs.

Third, Sakho seems comfortable playing a fairly high line, with the vast amount of his aerial duels just inside PSG's half. That's a key part of Rodgers' system, especially given what we've seen so far this season as Toure's taken over for Carragher.

For the most part, Sakho's tackles and interceptions came far deeper than his aerial duels – not especially surprising – but the amount of interceptions which took place directly outside the box is impressive, cutting off numerous throughball chances before they reached their target. None of Liverpool's center-backs made more interceptions per minute than Sakho last season.

Sakho's tackle success rate of 70% isn't especially awe-inspiring – slightly worse than Agger and equal to Carragher's last season – but what's more intriguing is that Sakho's made fewer tackles in each of his last three seasons – averaging 2.6 per appearance in 2010/11, 1.7 in 2011/12, and 1.1 in 2012/13, suggesting that he's become less reliant on diving in to make stops as he's gotten more experienced, relying more on his positioning and interceptions.

Both chalkboards demonstrate that Sakho is very much a left-sided center-back. Which is also Daniel Agger's favored position. Both players have rarely played on the right side of defense, and you rarely see two left-footed central defenders in the same XI. Kolo Toure's had a very good start to the season, but Liverpool aren't paying somewhere between £15-20m for Agger's back-up. I'd be very surprised if Sakho had fewer appearances than Toure by the end of the season. One of them – most likely Sakho – will have to adjust playing on the other side of the pitch. And if it's Sakho, he'll have to make that adjustment while adjusting to the pace and style of play of a completely different league than the one he grew up in. Gulp. But that's literally my lone concern.

So, how does Sakho's last season compare to Liverpool's center-backs?

Sakho played 2139 league minutes, while Agger played in 3097, Skrtel 2080, and Carragher 1535.

Skrtel's defensive statistics are actually surprisingly adequate. Yes, statistics lie – as Carragher's don't demonstrate the massive effect he had on Liverpool's defense over the second half of last season – and statistics don't explain how much Skrtel struggled with the high line that Rodgers wants to implement. But one stat still stands out, though: Skrtel's defensive errors, which were quite costly, especially since two of the five led to an opposition goal, and to two points dropped. Only one Liverpool player made more errors last season: Pepe Reina, who coincidentally is no longer with the club. Sakho made just two errors all season – more than Agger or Carragher – but neither leading to a goal.

Sakho's ability with the ball at his feet should also fit into Rodgers' style of play. The only Ligue 1 center-back with a higher pass accuracy than Sakho's 91.5% was his PSG teammate Alex, completing 1055 of 1153 passes. Agger completed 88.5% (1516 of 1713), Skrtel 90.1% (1030 of 1143), and Carragher 91.8% (741 of 807). Most impressive was Sakho's accuracy with long range passes. He attempted 132, completing 111 (84.1%). Agger completed 82 of 107 (76.6%), Skrtel completed 79 of 111 (71.2%), Carragher completed 66 of 81 (81.5%).

Sakho also scored twice last season, one of those goals coming from the five of seven aerial duels he won in the opposition box.

Mamadou Sakho was the youngest player to captain PSG, or any Ligue 1 side, at age 17, given the armband for a few matches by Paul Le Guin in 2007 in an effort to galvanizing the struggling side. He's captained France at every youth level, from under-17 to under-21, and has already made 151 league appearances despite his tender age of 23, young for any regular starter, let alone a center-back. Predominantly a center-back, Sakho's also capable of playing at left-back.

All the above statistics are from a season where Sakho was often third-choice center-back behind Alex and Thiago Silva. His statistics from 2010/11 and 2011/12 were similar, with more tackles and slightly more interceptions in those two seasons, but vastly improving his aerial duel success rate and pass accuracy in each successive season. The fear seems to be that he's somewhat stagnated; hopefully, the challenge of moving to a different league will help to revitalize his form. This summer, PSG added another center-back, paying €32m for Marquinhos to push Sakho further down the depth chart. It seems PSG's Qatari owners are far more concerned with big-name Brazilians rather than improving young French players who've been with the club for a decade. A young, much-heralded talent whose progression has slowed, made available for transfer by a big club that wants to replace him with a more-expensive signing? Where have I heard that before?

That's seemingly to Liverpool's benefit, finally filling one of the most glaring holes in the squad with an excellent, potentially top class 23-year-old French international. Welcome to Liverpool, Mamadou.

01 September 2013

Liverpool 1-0 Manchester United

Sturridge 4'

1-0 Sturridge, 1-0 Sturridge, 1-0 Sturridge. I could get used to this. As long as my heart holds out through the next 35 matches, that is.

None of Liverpool's wins have come easy this season. A first half goal, this one incredibly early, followed by Liverpool pinned deeper and deeper into two banks of four. But they've come in the end, and – especially at this stage of the season and given Liverpool's issues last season – that's all that really matters.

Only one player's registered a league goal for Liverpool this season, and it took that player just four minutes to get off the mark on his birthday. Early pressure from Liverpool, a corner won by Sturridge when Ferdinand made a last ditch tackle, Gerrard's delivery redirected by Agger and flicked into the back of the net by Sturridge, who'd cleverly eluded his marker by using De Gea as a blocker.

United responded well – van Persie bicycling over on one of the home sides too-numerous set plays, Mignolet smothering Welbeck's shot from outside the box, a monumental tackle by Johnson to deny Welbeck – but that threatening response only lasted for 15-20 minutes. The away side continued to see more of the ball, but Liverpool coped more than adequately, with Lucas, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, and Enrique all on top form, massively frustrating the Mancs, who were lucky not to have a man sent off as Cleverley, van Persie, and Carrick all saw yellow.

The second half followed in the same vein as Liverpool's last league win, with Liverpool similarly retreating into a deeper and deeper defensive shell. Only one side looked likely to score, and it wasn't Liverpool. Only one side managed more than a single shot at goal until the final 10 minutes, and it wasn't Liverpool. But, somehow, the narrow victory at Villa was surprisingly more nerve-wracking, despite today's opposition. Villa put Liverpool under more pressure, took more shots which nearly spoiled the win. Neither of United's second-half substitutes – Nani for Young and Hernandez for Giggs, after Valencia had to replaced Jones in the first half – improved the away side or changed the pattern of play. United bossed possession throughout entire second half, but only Nani's blast from distance in the 77th minute and van Persie's shot into the side netting 10 minutes later marginally threatened to level matters, and neither required the heroics from Mignolet that we saw against either Stoke or Villa.

As in those two other narrow victories, today's was a team-wide win. Eight of Liverpool's starting XI have a more-than-fair shout at being named man of the match; only Aspas and Coutinho underwhelmed, partly explainable by Liverpool's defensiveness, while Mignolet didn't have enough to do to merit it. Otherwise, Henderson and Lucas were utterly superlative; Gerrard led by example, as he often does in these fixtures; Sturridge scored yet again, despite still not being at full fitness; and every single member of Liverpool's back four had their best match of the season by some distance. Special mention goes out to Martin Skrtel, making just his third league start since Liverpool last faced United in mid-January, who not only kept van Persie under wraps for long stretches but frustrated him to the point where he was nearly dismissed just before halftime.

All three of Liverpool's substitutions made a positive impact as well. Sterling tracked back when needed and was only denied the sealing second goal by an excellent De Gea save. Wisdom, on for the injured Johnson, clearly put Notts County behind him, blocking off attempted attacks from both Evra and Welbeck before they truly threatened. Luis Alberto's fresh legs, replacing Coutinho, allowed Liverpool to press United in the final 10 minutes, preventing them from building up the head of steam that was inevitable throughout Ferguson's tenure. All three of those substitutes were born after Ryan Giggs made his league debut (hat tip Not Too Xabi). The seven players on Liverpool's bench had made a grand total of 89 league appearances, and have an average age of 21, a total inflated by Brad Jones' 31 years.

Liverpool took just four points from the same three fixtures last season: a dismal draw against Stoke where Liverpool did absolutely everything but score, a somewhat fortunate 2-1 comeback win at Villa, and a depressing 1-2 loss against United after Shelvey's early red card. Today is September 1st. Liverpool didn't have nine points in the league until October 28th last season.

This team is still very much in its formative stage, the first XI and the substitutes. It should get stronger in the next 24 hours, with Mamadou Sahko, Tiago Ilori, and Victor Moses in the director's box today, and with Suarez to return after two more matches suspended. Despite that, this team continues to win and continues to keep clean sheets, even if they haven't fully impressed in any fixture. But the ability to grind out these wins, three consecutive wins, in these difficult fixtures – especially today's – is arguably more impressive than any 4-0, 5-0, 6-0 bashing of clearly substandard opposition.