29 January 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: Aston Villa (h), Stoke (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Manchester City (a), Cardiff (h), Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), West Brom (h), Newcastle (a), Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Liverpool have had less possession than they did yesterday in just one match under Brendan Rodgers: last season's 2-2 draw at Arsenal, where they had just 38.2% possession. Those are the only two matches where Rodgers' side has had less than 40% possession. And yesterday's was at Anfield. Last season, the side averaged 57.2% possession per match; so far it's 54.5% this season. Yesterday truly was a masterclass in transitioning from a firm defensive shell to blitzkrieg counter-attacks, made possible by the early set play goal, and it was a team-wide victory.

Liverpool's top three tacklers yesterday? Cissoko, Sterling, and Coutinho. Top three in interceptions? Suarez, Sterling, and Skrtel. Top four in ball recoveries? Gerrard, Suarez, Coutinho, and Sterling – all with seven. Those are players you wouldn't expect to see leading the team in those categories, especially Coutinho and Sterling. Skrtel and Toure won seven of their eight aerial duels, Gerrard won all four of his four. Every player put in a defensive shift, and every player – even Cissokho! – did their jobs more than ably.

We criticize Rodgers when Liverpool's tactics fail, so it's only right he reaps the plaudits today. Pretty much every decision he made worked.

Liverpool's lopsided 4-3-3 formation exploited Everton's weaknesses, pressed Everton's defenders, forced an unfamiliar back-line into mistakes. Stones is untested, Alcaraz and Jagielka are both carrying knocks. Playing either Sturridge or Suarez on the left allowed them to run at Stones, and Liverpool perfectly exploited the space left by Stones trying to get forward for the second goal. Toure's long pass (it wasn't a hoof; he meant that) rent Jagielka and Alcaraz's high line asunder, while Suarez's pressing forced Jagielka into the mistake for the fourth. And it's no coincidence that Leighton Baines – often Everton's talisman – had Everton's lowest passing accuracy outside of the two strikers, while creating just one chance. Which emphasizes just how good Flanagan and Sterling were in defense. Sterling and Coutinho tracked back excellently; Suarez and Sturridge both did more work than expected when either was stationed on the left.

And both strikers were ruthless in attack: Sturridge with two goals, Suarez with a goal and assist. As we've become accustomed to. Sturridge and Suarez have now played together in 20 league matches. At least one of them has scored in 16 of those 20 matches; combined, they've 29 goals and 9 assists in those matches. Yesterday, the two took 10 shots, hitting the target with six. In total, Liverpool put 45% of its shots on target, Everton just 22%. Everton's two most dangerous players – Barkley and Mirallas – failed to hit the target with any of their nine shots.

Of course, I can't help but focus on Liverpool's midfield, as that's the area that's been broken more often than any other. There was Coutinho's defensive work, but still in position to play passes like the assist for Liverpool's second. Coutinho led the side in chances created with four; it's been more than a month since he played that many, with six against Cardiff. He had none against City, Stoke, and Villa; one against Chelsea; and two against Hull. There was Gerrard's discipline, while also winning his aerial duels and blocking more shots than any other player. And there was Henderson playing the link perfectly, supporting Gerrard but also helping out Cissokho on the left when needed, when either Suarez or Sturridge was higher up the pitch.

Unsurprisingly, it all started with a set play. Liverpool are currently converting around 16% of their set plays this season, which is more than any other team in the division. The league average is just over 8%. Through 23 matches, Liverpool have scored 15 goals from corners or free kicks. That's already more than in the last four seasons: scoring 11 last season, 14 in 2011-12, 11 in 2010-11, and 14 in 2009-10 (via WhoScored).

28 January 2014

Liverpool 4-0 Everton

Gerrard 21'
Sturridge 33' 35'
Suarez 50'

That was a textbook counter-attacking performance. If it's not actually in coaching textbooks, it should be.

And that's the difference a disciplined, intelligent midfield can make, especially when aligned with fast, pressing attackers. It was almost the exact same personnel as against Bournemouth – except Sterling for Moses, with Sturridge ostensibly switching to the left, but still often switching with Suarez – but a completely difference performance.

That difference begins and ends with Gerrard and Coutinho. The former held his position in front of the back four brilliantly, rarely caught out by Barkley, Pienaar, McCarthy, or Barry. The latter tracked back better than in any other match since he signed for Liverpool; it was arguably his most impressive performance for the club, except possibly the 6-0 thrashing of hapless Newcastle at the end of last season. No freelancing, as against Villa or Bournemouth. No gaping holes left when bombing forward aimlessly. Credit where due: maybe Gerrard can play in this role, as long as he has the support, and maybe Rodgers does know what he's doing. A functioning midfield truly does make all the difference.

That's not to take away from the potency of Liverpool's strike force. But that's something we've reveled in all season long. Gerrard opened the scoring, hammering in Suarez's corner for his first goal that wasn't a penalty or free kick in nearly a year, but the other three goals were Liverpool's strikers at their apex. Liverpool had been on top for the first 20 minutes, testing Howard with five shots on target, but as soon as they got the opening goal, Liverpool reverted to the defensive shell counter-attack which led to the three successive 1-0 wins to start the season.

Unlike in those three 1-0 wins, Liverpool had both Sturridge and Suarez at the peak of their powers. Everton had a couple a chances, requiring an excellent save from Mignolet and Mirallas' shot whistling wide, but Sturridge quickly added a second and third against the run of play: the first thanks to Coutinho's wonderful throughball and fullback John Stones caught upfield, the second from Toure's hoof forward, Sturridge timing his run perfectly to break the high offside line – did Everton learn nothing from Liverpool thrashing Tottenham? – and sumptuously chipping the on-rushing Howard. I'd have been even more impressed with the quality of the finish if it wasn't the third time he's done that this season. He, like Suarez, can make the magical look routine.

In Everton's defense, losing Lukaku on the set play that Gerrard scored from completely annihilated their attacking game plan, especially with on-loan Lacina Traore not ready to make his debut, requiring Naismith – a completely different type of player – to come on. Lukaku had been the bane of Liverpool's existence in his last three matches against the Reds, scoring four goals. And Everton's back four was as makeshift as Liverpool's, with both Distin and Coleman out injured. But Liverpool coped with their key players absent. Everton didn't, Everton couldn't.

Martinez looked to steady his ship during the interval, with Osman – on as a substitute for the already-booked, bound-to-be-sent-off Pienaar – blasting a curler which Mignolet excellently parried, Everton's first decent chance since Liverpool's second. But Liverpool soon added a fourth to remove any and all doubt. Suarez was the alpha and omega, his pressing winning possession in the center circle, then out-pacing Jagielka and Alcaraz the length of Everton's half before bamboozling Howard with a left-footed finish.

Three minutes later, Liverpool could and should have had five when Sterling beat the offside trap again to win a penalty, but Sturridge – desperate for his hat-trick – skied the spot kick. From there, cruise control, punctuated only by another break where Sturridge was again selfish and overelaborate in trying to force his third goal, and it was little surprise to see Rodgers haul him off seconds later. Moses replaced Sturridge, Kelly replaced Flanagan, and Luis Alberto replaced Coutinho as Liverpool cantered home. The only chance in the final 20 minutes for either side was Moses shooting into the side netting from the same position where he scored against Bournemouth.

For all Everton's possession – 60.6% to Liverpool's 39.4% – Liverpool never allowed the away side any comfort, anything easy. Not when up by one, three, or four. Not in the 25th minute, not in the 90th. Gerrard, Henderson, and Coutinho couldn't have been more in sync, Suarez and Sturridge were almost as ruthless as possible (*rues missed penalty despite the 4-0 mauling*), Skrtel and Toure won everything in the air – again, aided by Lukaku's departure – Mignolet made three excellent saves, and Flanagan's return massively improved Liverpool's defense. It wasn't coincidence that the frustrated Pienaar, matched up against Liverpool's right back, needed to be taken off at halftime.

That was even more satisfying that 5-0 at Tottenham, even without a fifth, without a Flanagan goal, despite being at Anfield. Because it came against that lot. It was nearly the biggest derby win in my lifetime; I was four months old when Rush scored four and Liverpool scored five at Goodison in 1982. Like against Tottenham, Liverpool provided the perfect riposte when we'd spent days dreading the outcome.

It's funny to look back on Rodgers' "death by football" proclamations from 18 months ago. I remember Liverpool winning the possession battle but losing or drawing a fair few matches early last season. Now, pragmatism: happily conceding possession to open up space for Suarez and Sturridge to slit necks. If Liverpool's midfield can defend and link play this well going forward, if Liverpool's defense can plug holes as effectively as they did today, and if those crucial absentees finally find fitness, the sky's the limit. Or, at least, Liverpool will achieve the fourth place dream.

Today was certainly a concrete step toward doing so.

27 January 2014

Liverpool v Everton 01.28.14

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-3 (a) 11.23.13
0-0 (h) 05.05.13
2-2 (a) 10.28.12
2-1 Liverpool (n; FA Cup) 04.14.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Bournemouth (a); 2-2 Villa (h); 5-3 Stoke (a)
Everton: 4-0 Stevenage (a); 1-1 West Brom (a); 2-0 Norwich (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Sturridge 11; Gerrard 5; Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Everton: Lukaku 9; Coleman 5; Mirallas 4; Baines, Barkley, Barry 3; Deulofeu, Osman, Oviedo 2; Naismith, Pienaar 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Atkinson's done two Merseyside derbies. In his first, a 1-0 Liverpool win in 2009-10, he sent off both Kyrgiakos and Pienaar (and Pienaar should have walked even earlier). In the second, a 2-0 Liverpool win in 2011-12, he (wrongly) sent off Jack Rodwell. This seems ominous.

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Toure Cissokho
Gerrard Henderson
Sterling Sturridge Suarez

Have I mentioned that I hate Merseyside derbies because I really hate Merseyside derbies.

I especially hate Merseyside derbies when Liverpool have at least five key players absent. Enrique, Agger, Sakho, Lucas, and Johnson are all still injured. Liverpool's four best defenders and the lone defensive midfielders. That's not good.

But Joe Allen might, just might, be fit. And Allen's participation will probably decide the formation Liverpool deploys. If Allen's fit, Liverpool seem certain to play 4-2-2-2, with Gerrard and Allen central, Henderson on one of the flanks, and Coutinho or Sterling – probably the former – on the other side.

If he's not, then my best guess is the above lineup, similar to the formation deployed against Bournemouth with a slight shift in the front three. It might be the same as against Bournemouth, with Suarez ostensibly central but often switching with Sturridge on the right, but I think that the front three used at Arsenal last season could be more effective: Suarez staying on the left more often, Sturridge and Sterling higher up the pitch for more counter-attacking potential. Or, it could be more of the 4-2-4 we saw against Villa with both Coutinho and Sterling on the flanks, but please no. Everton are hoping it'll be that. My heart can't take 90 minutes of that.

Regardless of the front six, there almost certainly will be no surprises at the back. Mignolet back in goal, Skrtel and Toure in the middle, Flanagan in place of Kelly on the right, and Cissokho on the left. Maybe both Kelly and Flanagan start rather than Cissokho, but I doubt it given Kelly's struggles on Saturday.

It's not as if Everton are without injury problems of their own. Barkley, Oviedo, Deulofeu, Gibson, Alcaraz, and Kone will all miss out, while Pienaar, Coleman, and Distin are doubtful. Those players account for 13 of Everton's 35 goals this season, and include Everton's player of the season so far; Coleman's been even more influential than Romelu Lukaku. Still, they've more than enough weapons to punish Liverpool, most notably Lukaku, who's scored in each of his last three league matches against Liverpool.

If all the above players are absent, Everton's XI will most likely be: Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Stones, Baines; Barry, McCarthy; Naismith, Osman, Mirallas; Lukaku. But I'd be surprised if both Coleman and Distin were absent, probably because of my natural pessimism. If just one is missing, he'll be replaced by John Stones; if both, Stones and Hibbert. Heitinga's a possibility, but he seems on his way out of the club. New signing McGeady could also start in place of Naismith. Regardless, it'll be a 4-2-3-1 formation, with three central players who'll look to dominate the ball against Liverpool's duct-taped midfield.

Everton have lost just three matches all season, just two in the league, and just once since October 5. But they've drawn more matches than all except West Brom, with nine of their 22 league fixtures ending level. Most of the draws have come on the road, but Martinez's side is equally tough to beat both home and away.

And all three derbies under Brendan Rodgers have been draws: 2-2 away and 0-0 at home last season, 3-3 at Goodison this season. With just one point separating Liverpool and Everton, and with Tottenham (who host Manchester City on Wednesday) sandwiched in between, a win for either side will given them just a bit of much-needed breathing space in the chase for the last Champions League place.

25 January 2014

Liverpool 2-0 Bournemouth

Moses 26'
Sturridge 60'

I'm not sure how to feel after that. Job done and all, but Liverpool didn't look especially good at that job in the first half, while too many crucial first team players featured for the full 90 minutes.

The XI was fairly similar to the last Saturday's in demoralizing draw against Villa, with Moses, Kelly, and Jones straight swaps for Sterling, Johnson, and Mignolet. But Rodgers at least changed the formation, a lopsided 4-3-3 with Coutinho central ahead of Gerrard and Henderson, Suarez and Sturridge taking turns attacking from the right.

With better finishing, and a better linesman, Liverpool could have won at a canter. Both Sturridge and Suarez were wrongly ruled offside when put through by Gerrard passes over the top. Henderson missed a sitter in the first half, Sturridge hit the crossbar in the second half. Liverpool still won fairly comfortably, rarely threatened after opening the scoring, despite Bournemouth's 12 corners and 19 shots.

But once again, Liverpool struggled to control midfield, especially in the first 25 minutes, but were marginally more protected by the change in formation with Coutinho central. Gerrard's positioning is still incredibly worrying, still too eager to charge into the tackle or interception without a care for what's behind him if he doesn't win position; Henderson's still unsure how to play off his partner, when to sit and when to go forward, where to cover if the captain goes on a wander. But Bournemouth focused their attacks down the flanks, specifically Liverpool's right flank.

Kelly, obviously uncomfortable, obviously lacking match fitness, had absolutely no protection from the change in formation. Which led to multiple Bournemouth attacks down that flank, ending with a Daniels cross into the box, an Arter shot from distance, or a Bournemouth corner. The home side took 12 shots in the first half, but only two were on-target. Until Liverpool scored, it felt too much like Villa, and a better side could have eviscerated Liverpool. But – and no offense meant – Bournemouth aren't a better side.

Meanwhile, Liverpool scored from its first shot on target, its only shot on target in the first half. A quick Sturridge-Suarez counter-attack down Bournemouth's left with Daniels caught up-field, Suarez's cross-field pass to Moses, controlled then cutting onto his stronger foot, hammered inside the near post. Camp will be more than disappointed to concede at the near post, but to be fair, it was a fairly fearsome low shot.

Bournemouth's best two chances came soon after, both down Liverpool's right, but Arter curled his rocket narrowly wide, while Toure did excellently to block Surman's shot from the penalty spot, wide open to receive Daniels' low cross.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the early threat down the flank and from Bournemouth's eight first-half corners, the home side were starting to tire by halftime. Liverpool economically controlled the second-half; Bournemouth could have won a penalty from Kelly's clumsy defending one of the many corners, but that was about it after the interval, and the game was over once Liverpool got the needed second. Another break, another brilliant link-up between Suarez and Sturridge, the Englishman finishing the Uruguayan's throughball with aplomb despite being on his weaker foot, finally getting the (correct) benefit of the doubt from the linesman.

From there, Liverpool were on top, denying Bournemouth any opportunities until the 88th minute, while Sturridge (twice) and Suarez had counter-attack chances to extend the lead. The lone complaint stems from Rodgers' refusal to use his substitutes yet again, replacing Kelly with the returning Flanagan in the 73rd, but waiting another ten minutes to bring on Luis Alberto and Sterling, for Coutinho and Moses. Moses, who rarely features in the league, after scoring his first goal in five months, hauled off. With seven minutes to play. Coutinho, more effective than against Villa but still less effective than he should be, left on for that length of time, even after Liverpool had taken what appeared an insurmountable lead. Suarez, Sturridge, Gerrard, and Henderson all playing the full 90 minutes. I know Liverpool are wholly lacking in depth at the moment – there was literally no one who could have replaced Henderson or Gerrard on the bench, and neither did much running in the final half an hour – but it was still exasperating, especially with the Merseyside Derby in three days.

So, yeah, job done. Into the draw for the fifth round. Suarez and Sturridge are still the most ruthless strike partnership in the country, Skrtel and Toure looked vastly improved (albeit against less than impressive opposition), Liverpool's midfield was marginally better, Flanagan's back.

We'll learn the cost of that progression in little more than 72 hours.

24 January 2014

Liverpool at Bournemouth 01.25.14

7:45am ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.30.68
0-0 (a; FA Cup) 01.27.68
4-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.12.27
1-1 (a; FA Cup) 01.08.27

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Villa (h); 5-3 Stoke (a); 2-0 Oldham (h); 2-0 Hull (h)
Bournemouth: 1-1 Watford (h); 4-1 Burton (h); 0-3 Wigan (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Sturridge 13; Gerrard 5; Sterling 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Skrtel 2; Agger, Aspas, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Bournemouth: Grabban 11; Pitman 7; Ritchie 5; Pugh 4; Fraser 3; O'Kane 2; Arter, Cook, Elphick, Rantie 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Toure Cissokho
Gerrard Henderson
Aspas L Alberto Moses

So, who's fit? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Oh, hey, and there's a Merseyside Derby on Tuesday.

Liverpool literally have no alternatives in defense. Skrtel and Toure are the only two available center-backs, Cissokho is the only available first-team left-back, unless Rodgers wants to hand Brad Smith a second appearance (and first start) despite an already makeshift back four. Flanagan's only just returned from injury, and may not even be fit enough to start; if that's the case, Sterling seemingly has to play right-back. Henderson would be an option there, but as he and Gerrard are the only two healthy central midfielders, he'll almost certainly be used there. We won't mention that's the same central midfield which wholly failed to operate against Aston Villa and that Bournemouth deploy a similar formation. Nope. Not mentioning it.

Liverpool at least have the ability to rotate the attacking players. Whether Rodgers will actually do so is the question. Coutinho, Sterling, and Sturridge seemingly need to be rested or protected, the former two over-worked of late, the latter only recently back from injury. I'd suggest protecting Suarez as well, primarily because of Tuesday's match, but he's one of those rare players that rarely need a rest. Aspas, Alberto, Moses, and Ibe are all options – out-of-favor options for the most part, but options nonetheless. If Suarez starts, he'll probably be joined by the first three, whether Liverpool play 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2. If Suarez is rested, those four will probably be the front four.

Bournemouth are currently 16th in the Championship, seven points outside of the relegation zone. They've the second leakiest defense in the division, conceding 45 goals in the 26 matches so far this season. Only Millwall have allowed more. Bournemouth's last league win came on Boxing Day against Yeovil, drawing three and losing once since. That 3-0 win over Yeovil was Bournemouth's only clean sheet in the last 20 matches, the previous coming on September 17th. Something Liverpool (and its fans) came sympathize with.

Eddie Howe has has started nearly the same XI in the last five league matches. 4-3-3: Camp; Francis, Elphick, Ward, Daniels; Surman, O'Kane, Arter; Ritchie, Grabban, Pugh. Fraser has come in for Pugh on the left wing twice, McQuoid for Arter in midfield once, but those have been the only changes in the league line-ups since Boxing Day. Howe did slightly rotate his side for the previous FA Cup round, but I doubt he'll do so tomorrow.

As against Oldham, I won't embarrass us both by pretending to be familiar with Bournemouth's players. Defender Elliott Ward and midfielder Andrew Surman have both faced Liverpool before while at Norwich, with Ward starting in Suarez's first hat-trick, Surman in Suarez's second. Goalkeeper Lee Camp has drifted around the lower divisions and a couple of Premiership clubs for a decade; he's never faced Liverpool, but has probably been on the bench in a match or two for Derby, Norwich, or West Brom. Either Grabben or Pitman will start up front – but probably not both, given Howe's preferred formation – with the two responsible for half of Bournemouth's goals.

It sounds regrettably patronizing, but as is always the case in these matches, this will be one of Bournemouth's biggest fixtures of the season. And it'll be in front of their own fans. As Liverpool's learned, primarily against Mansfield and Oldham last season, that can be a recipe for disaster.

Everton on Tuesday is a vastly, indescribably more important match. But this one comes first, and no matter who starts, Liverpool need to focus on the task at hand before thoughts turn to the derby.

23 January 2014

Suarez and Sturridge's Shooting

FYI Defenders: Don't let Sturridge shoot centrally, especially close to goal. And you probably shouldn't let Suarez shoot from anywhere.

Both have improved on the second half of last season's numbers so far this season.

Over the 39 league matches since Sturridge made his debut, the two have been on the pitch for just 1368 minutes. Out of a possible 3510. Which is just 39%.

Incidentally, Liverpool's record in those 39 matches is 21W-10D-8L, an average of 1.87 points per game. When both Sturridge and Suarez start, Liverpool's record is 7W-5D-2L, an average of 1.86 points per game. Sturridge has come on as a substitute in five matches – against United, West Ham, Chelsea, Everton, and Stoke – with Liverpool winning one, drawing three, and losing one. Which is a fairly terrible record, but consider the competition. In addition, Sturridge has scored in four of those five substitute appearances, with Liverpool coming back from a deficit to draw in two of the three that finished level.

20 January 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Stoke (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Manchester City (a), Cardiff (h), Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), West Brom (h), Newcastle (a), Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Liverpool have played 267 matches (194 in the league) since the last time they took a point despite a two-goal deficit. That was December 13, 2008, conceding two early goals to Hull before getting back to 2-2 before halftime, but unable to find a winner in the second half. That match was also at Anfield, a match that Liverpool expected to win going in, a match that Liverpool needed to win. The last time Liverpool won despite a two-goal deficit was 15 matches before that, beating Manchester City 3-2 in October 2008.

Liverpool have been behind by at least two goals in 36 matches over those five years. They were able to pull a goal back in 14 of those 36 matches, but either couldn't get another or conceded a third to the opposition. So, yes, that Liverpool were able to at least get a point on Saturday is progress, is further exorcism of the last four seasons' pain. But they shouldn't have been in that position in the first place.

"They put a lot of men around me. Every time I tried to get the ball under control they swamped me in the first half. It didn't work for myself or the team. I openly admit that it wasn't one of my better 45 minutes, but I improved after the break with the team and we managed to get back in it, but it's still two points dropped for us." (via Sky Sports)

Saturday saw Gerrard's worst passing accuracy of the season, the worst since I started doing these match infographics at the beginning of last season? This season's previous low was last week at Stoke. The two times he's played in "the Pirlo role." I wonder if that's coincidence.

Saturday also saw Gerrard's low for passes completed when starting since the beginning of last season, and that's including matches where he was subbed off. The only other match that came close was the 2-2 draw at Everton last season, where Liverpool were dominated after going up 2-0 within 20 minutes; Gerrard completed 35 of 39 attempted.

Unsurprisingly, Gerrard's performance did improve in the second half. Because he had help.

Lucas and Allen provide an outlet. Lucas and Allen will knit play in their own half, will play the simple pass to open up space. Lucas and Allen will do the chasing in defense. Henderson, for all his positives, suffers in those areas, almost immediately looking to get forward, leaving Gerrard with few options when he actually received the ball in the first half. It really is no coincidence that Liverpool's best 20 minutes were the 20 minutes that Lucas was on the pitch, even if the Brazilian's rarely been 'at his best' this season. Gerrard's passing was still overly ambitious, and subsequently less accurate, in the second half – look at all those long passes – but one of those ambitious passes won Liverpool the (deserved) equalizing penalty. And that's also a credit to how Villa defended and swarmed the midfield, even when they were less dangerous in attack thanks to Liverpool's halftime changes (as well as Agbonlahor's injury).

Liverpool's inability to win aerial duels was almost as much an issue as the missing midfield. Again, Gerrard was especially poor, winning none of his six, all in dangerous positions. Lucas isn't the best header of the ball, but he's averaged 2.5 aerial duels won per match this season, fourth-best in the squad behind Skrtel, Sakho, and Agger, winning 62% (47 of 76).

Benteke won 13 of 18 aerial duels on Saturday. At Villa Park, Benteke only won five of 12 aerial duels, as Agger won three of five, Toure two of three, Lucas two of two, and Johnson six of 10. On Saturday, Skrtel won four of six, Toure one of two, and Johnson one of seven, in addition to Gerrard's zero of six. Most notable were Johnson's failings: from six of ten in the last meeting to one of seven two days ago, especially important because of how Benteke prefers to drift wide onto a fullback – usually the right-back – on long hoofs forward. It's no surprise that Benteke attempted the most passes in the match, tied with Henderson. Unlike in the last two wins over Villa, Liverpool could not stop him.

Johnson's decline over the last couple of months, in absolutely every facet of the game, has been one of the most worrying trends of late, especially with Enrique and Flanagan's injuries, and Martin Kelly's disappearance from the face of the earth.

Combined, Liverpool's fullbacks attempted just 15 passes in the attacking third, completing nine. At home. Against Aston Villa. In the last three matches they've started – against Hull, at Stoke, against Villa – Johnson and Cissokho are responsible for just two chances created (both by Johnson) and just four shots (three from Cissokho, one from Johnson), all four either off-target or blocked. And yet both were caught upfield on Villa's two goals, one from each flank, stretching an already infirm defense out of position, with both goals coming from Agbonlahor crosses: one low, one lofted. Yes, Johnson's woefully out-of-form. Yes, Cissokho's third-choice, at best. That's still unacceptable, and thanks to injuries, it's become Liverpool's weakest position, despite the aforementioned struggles in midfield.

Remember when it 'just wasn't working' last season against Wigan? Rodgers hooked Suso in the 36th minute, even though Suso had been one of Liverpool's lone bright spots. But the midfield was unbalanced and ineffective, and Liverpool need the midfield to be at least marginally working to be anywhere near their best. Liverpool went on to win 3-0 against Wigan thanks to that substitution. Sure, by that point on Saturday, Liverpool was already 0-1 down, soon to be 0-2, but there was no need to wait until halftime to rectify what was obviously a bad situation, a situation that was obviously bad by the 10th minute.

There were some very, very bad Liverpool performances on the pitch. Gerrard's inability to play in the deep-lying role, the fullbacks' ineptness, time passing Toure by, Mignolet's error for Villa's second goal (the fourth goal he was at fault for in five games, no less). And, yes, injuries than have hamstrung this already shallow squad. But Rodgers' almost arrogant, overly-attacking starting XI and then waiting until halftime to make the obvious substitution still seems most at fault for Liverpool dropping two points.

18 January 2014

Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa

Weimann 25'
Benteke 37'
Sturridge 45+2'
Gerrard 53' (pen)

Brendan Rodgers lost Liverpool two points today. And at least it was only two.

Liverpool's defense and midfield have been in shambles, the former ravaged by injuries, the latter unbalanced by Gerrard's return. You conceded three to Stoke – Stoke! – last week, you've kept three clean sheets in the last 18 league matches. Yes, Liverpool have succeeded by scoring goals this season, but maybe don't line up with a balls-to-the-wall attacking formation that further exposes your obvious weaknesses.

And if you're going to go with a balls-to-the-wall attacking formation – which, again, I don't recommend in the first place – you probably shouldn't concede the initiative to the opposition. The two midfielders need to be able to win and control possession (*glares at Gerrard and Henderson and then Gerrard again*), the defenders need to be comfortable on the ball (*glares at Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho, and a still-wildly-out-of-form Johnson*), the attackers need to press the opposition midfielders (*feels bad for poor, isolated Sturridge*). None of those things happened.

Liverpool deployed a 4-2-4 formation but also decided to defend as deeply as possible, inviting Villa onto them. And Villa gladly complied, hoofing deep into the final third from kickoff and pretty much keeping the ball there for the next 25 minutes, winning almost every single aerial duel, exploiting the acres and acres of space down either flank, and bypassing midfield every single damned time. Neither Henderson nor Gerrard – neither a holding midfielder, no matter what Rodgers wants to believe – could get a foot on the ball.

The only surprise was that it took Villa 25 minutes to score, having wasted three good chances before finally tallying. Toure charging out to miss a header, allowing Agbonlahor to nip in ahead of a retreating Skrtel before poking just wide within a minute set the tone. Gerrard dispossessed in the 16th minute ended with Weimann's blast fortunately straight at Mignolet. Clark, eluding Johnson, cannoned a free header off the foot of the post from Villa's first corner of the match in the 24th.

Liverpool could only live dangerously for so long. I guess it was fitting that Villa's goal came from a blitzkrieg counter despite all the pressure created through possession to that point. Suarez lost the ball deep in Villa's half, two quick passes from Delph and Benteke released Agbonlahor, spinning away from and out-pacing Toure before cutting in and centering to an arguably offside Weimann in the six-yard box, with Gerrard failing to fully track the forward's run. A comedy of errors, insane positioning and anarchic marking, but I'm not laughing.

Liverpool didn't take its first shot until the 28th minute, didn't test Guzan until the 32nd. But then it was straight back down to the other end: more errors, more comedy. Cissokho so far out of position he's not even in the camera angle, forcing Toure to come out wide in an attempt to mark both Agbonlahor and El Ahmadi. Agbonlahor, with space to cross before Gerrard's able to close down. Mignolet and Johnson in a complete muddle, the former flapping at the cross, the latter leaving Benteke to try to head away. The Belgian won't score an easier goal, stooping to tap in a header from six yards out. It was his fourth in four games against Liverpool.

From there, you assume it's last season all over again. Two unexpected first-half goals, and the feeling that Villa absolutely have more in them. But at least Liverpool righted the ship, getting the necessary first before the interval: lovely build-up from Suarez and Henderson to dice through seven Villa players strung across their 18-yard box, Henderson's back-heel releasing Sturridge, finished wonderfully with his weaker foot.

Halftime also gave Rodgers a chance to rectify his mistakes, bringing on Lucas for Coutinho, who'd done absolutely nothing of note in the first half. Villa no longer bossed midfield. And Liverpool were level within eight minutes of the restart: another slightly fortunate penalty won when Guzan made marginal contact with Suarez, sent through by Gerrard's picture-perfect long pass, the penalty unsurprisingly converted by Liverpool's captain.

That should have been the platform to win the game. And Liverpool soon had chances to take the lead, but Guzan made three saves: the first routine from Sturridge's tame shot, the second on Suarez's fierce blast straight down his throat, the third the best, somehow parrying Henderson's effort despite seeing it late.

And then Liverpool's substitute had to be substituted, going off with a knee injury, seemingly a similar situation to when he tore his ACL at Chelsea, trying but unable to play on. Allen came on, and through little fault of his own, Liverpool lost momentum, the only chance of note Suarez's long-range free kick whistling wide in the 77th until a furious but futile injury time.

I like Brendan Rodgers. There's absolutely no doubt that Liverpool are a vastly better side now than when he took over, and on the whole, they've improved over his tenure. But today's starting XI was criminally, suicidally stupid. As Stoke did last week, Villa throughly exposed Liverpool's weaknesses. But they didn't need to be helped by the starting XI. Unlike last week, Liverpool didn't have five goals in reserve, as Villa didn't defend as unrelentingly stupidly as Stoke did.

Liverpool need their defenders to get fit, and probably need both another midfielder and full-back before the end of January if they're truly going to push on to fourth and possibly beyond. Especially if Lucas is out for an extended period of time. The 20 minutes he was on the pitch – as well as the first 45 minutes that he wasn't – demonstrate how important he is to the side even if he hasn't been at his best at all this season. And it's also evidence why Henderson "out wide" had been so important out wide when Liverpool had used a similar formation with both Suarez and Sturridge available earlier in the season. Gerrard struggles in a two-man midfield. So does Henderson. Never put them together again. Although, as much blame goes to the defense: Toure on the first goal, Mignolet and Cissokho on the second.

Liverpool have taken four points from the last two matches. They took zero from these two last season. That's no small matter. But had Liverpool started with the lineup that came out after halftime, it almost certainly would have been six.

17 January 2014

Liverpool v Aston Villa 01.18.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.24.13
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13
1-2 Villa (h) 12.15.12
1-1 (h) 04.07.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-3 Stoke (a); 2-0 Oldham (h); 2-0 Hull (h)
Villa: 1-2 Arsenal (h); 1-2 Sheffield Utd (h); 1-0 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Sturridge 10; Gerrard 4; Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Villa: Benteke 5; Kozak 4; Agbonlahor 3; Bacuna, El Ahmadi 2; Delph, Luna, Weimann, Westwood 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Toure Cissokho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Coutinho
Suarez Sturridge

According to Rodgers, Liverpool's injury crisis is finally easing, with Sturridge fit enough to start, Allen back in training, and Sakho not far away.

Available for an impressive 25 minute cameo last weekend, featuring a goal and an assist, it's safe to assume Sturridge will go straight into the starting XI. Which means – given Henderson's ubiquity, used in three or four different roles this season and the only outfield player to start every league match – one of Sterling or Coutinho will have to make way. A month ago, I'd have said Coutinho was certain to keep his place, but Sterling's looked better, and had a bigger impact, over the last few weeks. Still, I think Rodgers will stick with the Brazilian, playing his usual 60 or so minutes before being replaced by the speedy Sterling. But if Sterling does keep his place, you'd think it'd be as much a 4-3-3 as the 4-2-2-2 we usually see with both Sturridge and Suarez fit, similar in style to the last 25 minutes against Stoke.

It's also safe to assume that Sturridge is much more likely to start than Sakho or Allen given his participation last week, but both of the latter could also feature is Rodgers deems them ready. With Agger still out, Sakho would be an improvement on either Toure or Skrtel – you know, an actual left-footed defender and all – most likely replacing the former if available, although we're probably stuck with the Skrtel-Toure pairing for at least one more match. Allen's return could see Lucas dropped if Rodgers remains serious about using Gerrard as the deepest midfielder; he's vastly more suited to the role that Lucas played at Stoke.

Aston Villa have won just one of the seven league matches since December 8, beating last place Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light, drawing 1-1 against Swansea and losing the other five. But three of those five losses have been by a single goal, narrow defeats against Palace, Stoke, and Arsenal – the loss to Arsenal last time out was probably the best match Villa's played in two months – while conceding two at Fulham and three against United.

Villa have vacillated between 4-3-3 and 5-3-2 this season. They played the latter in the previous match against Arsenal, starting Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker, Clark, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Agbonlahor, Benteke. Given Baker's frightening injury against Arsenal, I'd expect a return to four-at-the-back, whether a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2. They simply don't have the personnel for a five-man defense with both Baker and Okore absent.

If it's 4-4-2, it'll probably look like last week's match against Arsenal after Baker went off: Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Luna; El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph, Bacuna; Agbonlahor, Benteke. If it's the 4-3-3 we've seen previously this season, it'll be: Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker, Luna; Bacuna/El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor. Villa lined up in a 4-3-3 in the last two matches against Liverpool, having used five-at-the-back in the soul-killing 1-3 victory at Anfield a little more than a year ago.

In addition to Baker and Okore, Kozak, Herd, and N'Zogbia are also out injured. Grant Holt, signed from Norwich on loan, is in contention in either formation, but it seems slightly too soon, having only started training on Wednesday. Villa also announced the loan signing of Chelsea's Ryan Bertrand today, but if it's too soon for Holt, it's definitely too soon for Bertrand.

Regardless of the formation, Villa will be dangerous in one regard. The same regard that led to three goals in this fixture last season. The same regard that led Stoke to scoring two of their three goals against Liverpool last week. The counter-attack.

Villa press well high up the pitch, but also get back quickly to defend deeply. Agbonlahor, Benteke, and Weimann rent Liverpool asunder at Anfield last season, and despite each's drop in scoring form, remain capable of doing so tomorrow. And that deep defense restricted Liverpool to just five shots when these sides met in August, by far the lowest of Rodgers' tenure. Despite Villa's season-long injury issues at the back, they've conceded 14 fewer goals than at this point last season, and are consequently four points and five places better off in the table. And that's after the struggles they've endured over the last six weeks.

Prior to beating Liverpool last season, Villa had scored all of two goals in the previous five matches. And then proceeded to lose their next three by a combined 15-0 margin. Form has mattered little in this fixture in recent years. As we've said all season long, Liverpool just need to keep winning, and it matters little whether it's by mauling another bottom-half side at Anfield or eking out a terrifying, narrow win.

15 January 2014

Liverpool's Premier League Clean Sheets Under Brendan Rodgers

A few assorted notes:

• Johnson's started every one of Liverpool's 22 Premiership clean sheets under Rodgers. Agger's started 20.

• I didn't include Liverpool's record or points-per-game when each defender starts in the above graphic because that's subjective to so many other variables. Not that Liverpool's ability to keep clean sheets when a certain defender's on the pitch isn't anyway. But if you're curious.

Johnson: 27W-13D-12L (1.81ppg)
Agger: 20W-13D-11L (1.66pg)
Skrtel: 20W-9D-13L (1.64ppg)
Enrique: 16W-9D-3L (2.04ppg)
Carragher: 8W-7D-1L (1.94ppg)
Wisdom: 6W-6D-1L (1.87ppg)
Sakho: 6W-2D-4L (1.67ppg)
Toure: 6W-1D-3L (1.90ppg)
Cissokho: 4W-1D-2L (1.86ppg)
Flanagan: 4W-1D-2L (1.86ppg)

• 17 of the 22 clean sheets ended in wins. There were five 0-0 draws last season; every time Liverpool have kept a clean sheet this season, they've won.

• The back four which has kept the most clean sheets under Rodgers was Johnson-Carragher-Agger-Enrique, responsible for six of last season's 16. I miss Carragher.

• Liverpool have used 16 different defensive line-ups in this season's 21 Premiership matches. Only one back four has featured more than twice: Johnson-Skrtel-Sakho-Flanagan, in three consecutive matches in early December. Liverpool won all three, but kept a clean sheet in just one: against hapless Tottenham. Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique, last season's most-used back four (despite Enrique's recurring injuries), has featured in just one match: the 1-0 win against Manchester United.

That sort of defensive rotation doesn't usually lend itself to defensive solidity. Incidentally, Liverpool's longest stretch without keeping a clean sheet – seven matches – came this season. Aside from Rodgers' first six league matches last season, conceding at least once in all six, the longest Liverpool went without keeping a clean sheet in 2012-13 was three matches.

• Liverpool have started with a back three/back five in seven matches under Rodgers: twice last season, five times this season. Liverpool didn't keep a clean sheet in any of those seven matches. Although, to be fair, Liverpool kept Everton scoreless in the second half of last season's 2-2 draw at Goodison by switching to a back five.

• The usual caveat about defensive error statistics. These are via Squawka, which uses Opta's definition, and doesn't include being beaten down the flanks and allowing the winger to cross or cut inside (*glares at Johnson and Cissokho*) or endlessly grabbing the opposition on set plays (*glares at Skrtel*) or failing to mark that big striker you probably should be marking so he doesn't have a free header (*glares at pretty much every center-back*). Among other things.

13 January 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 5-3 Stoke

Previous Match Infographics: Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Manchester City (a), Cardiff (h), Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), West Brom (h), Newcastle (a), Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Yesterday was the first time that Liverpool conceded three in a league match and still won since a 4-3 victory against Blackburn in May 2002. 441 matches ago. It has happened seven times in cup ties over that span, including Champions League and FA Cup finals you may remember, but it's a more-than-rare occurrence in league fixtures.

That's because rarely has Liverpool been this deadly in front of goal when so deficient in defense. Nine of Liverpool's 13 shots were on-target yesterday. 69.2%. Liverpool's season-long average is 39.6%, Liverpool's previous high in a single match was 53.8% against Crystal Palace. And Liverpool's season-long average is the highest in the division; Arsenal are second-best with 39.2% and the league wide average is 32.7%.

Four of those nine shots on-target ended with the ball in the back of the net. 44.4%. Liverpool's season-long average is 36.4%, which is second-best in the division, behind only Manchester City, who are averaging 44.4% of on-target shots ending in goals. The league-wide average is 29.4%.

Three of those four Liverpool shots off-target came from Liverpool's first three shots; nine of Liverpool's ten shots after the 30th minute were on-target. And one of the four off-target shots ended up in the back of Stoke's net thanks to Shawcross' fortunate deflection. Yesterday was also the first time that Liverpool's opponent failed to block a single shot.

Probably not coincidentally, just two of Liverpool's 13 shots came from outside the box, both off-target.

As for the opposition. When you wrestle with pigs, you're bound to get muddy. Liverpool's 79% passing accuracy was its fifth-lowest of season, behind United and Southampton at home, and Everton and City away. Liverpool's total passes and accuracy almost totally mirrored Stoke's, and both sides took 13 shots. Liverpool had more possession in the first half, Stoke reversed that in the second half. I'm tempted to blame some of Liverpool's lack of control on Liverpool's midfield, but it was Stoke, and Stoke does have previous in turning less-than-pretty matches completely ugly, no matter the opposition and especially on their own pitch.

No team this season has attempted more crosses in a single match than Stoke did yesterday.

Stoke averages 21 crosses per match this season, 14th-most in the league (via Who Scored). Only Newcastle, Cardiff, Palace, Liverpool, Fulham, and Villa attempt fewer per match. You think Hughes identified a weakness in Liverpool's squad? One full-back wholly out of form, one the third-choice stand-in, and a makeshift center-back pairing.

12 of those 51 crosses found a Stoke player. Two led to goals, and Liverpool could and probably should have stopped both of them. Johnson and Suarez had the opportunity to close down Arnautovic before crossing for the first goal, Crouch too easily eluded Toure to reach the header. Mignolet really should have saved the third goal, something we're saying for the third match out of the last four. Liverpool only won 37.8% of the aerial duels yesterday.

But least Liverpool were vastly improved on set plays.

11 corners, but only three found a Stoke player, none led to a dangerous situation. Seven free kicks in Liverpool's half, none leading to a dangerous situation. And that was with Charlie "his set plays are worth £10m" Adam taking almost all of them. That's some semblance of defensive progress.

12 January 2014

Liverpool 5-3 Stoke

Shawcross OG 5'
Suarez 32' 71'
Crouch 39'
Adam 45'
Gerrard 51' (pen)
Walters 85'
Sturridge 87'

Well, if you're too disorganized to prevent the opposition from scoring, make sure you're potent enough to score more than they do.

Liverpool hadn't won a single one of the five league matches at the Britannia since Stoke's promotion in 2008-09. They'd scored all of two goals in those five matches: Gerrard's penalty in last season's 1-3 loss and Kyrgiakos' set play header in a 1-1 draw in 2009-10. Stoke had lost just one league match at home this season – albeit to Norwich – beating Chelsea and holding both City and Everton to draws. In the process, they'd conceded just seven league goals in those 10 league matches this season. Stoke hasn't conceded five at home in a league match in more than 15 years, on the last day of the season in 1997-98, relegated from the Championship to League One after a 2-5 loss to Manchester City.

So this is something of a momentous victory, even if it's much more the relief of passing a massive kidney stone rather than a cause for euphoric celebration.

Because make no mistake, this Liverpool team still has very visible problems, and Stoke laid almost all of them bare. But Liverpool were resilient enough, potent enough to overcome them. That hasn't always been the case, that won't always be the case, but it's still incredibly gratifying to see today.

Liverpool's first two goals were so very, very Stoke. As in last season's meeting, Liverpool scored within five minutes, this time from a more-than-speculative long range shot from Cissokho haplessly deflected by Shawcross into his own net. And as in last season's meeting, Liverpool subsequently conceded the initiative to the home side, under threat thanks to Adam and Walters constant attacks down Liverpool's left and six Stoke corners in the first 25 minutes.

But Liverpool held firm, doing just enough to block those crosses and clear those corners. And then Skrtel's aimless hoof from defense somehow found Suarez, pressing Marc Wilson into a dire mistake, sneaking in to poke past Butland before Butland could recover. Two goals is enough right? Last season, one obviously wasn't but Liverpool couldn't possibly give up a two-goal lead against Stoke.

Ha. They most certainly could, in slightly more than five minutes. The first came on one of Stoke's few forays down Liverpool's right. Unlike Cissokho and Coutinho's defense on the opposite flank, Johnson and Suarez allowed Arnautovic all the time in the world to measure in his cross, which flawlessly found Crouch, who'd somehow shirked Skrtel's Toure's marking for a well-aimed free header.

Okay. Deep breaths. Liverpool still had the lead, and had the chance to extend that lead just a minute later thanks to an excellent counter-attack, but Coutinho shot straight at Butland and Shawcross somehow beat Coutinho to the rebound.

And then, abject idiocy. Henderson gave the ball away in his own half, misplaying a pass to Gerrard that caused Gerrard to slip. Adam picked up possession, "charged" (well, Adam's version of charging) at a retreating Skrtel, and hammered an unstoppable blast past Mignolet. Because of course the two ex-Liverpool players would be the two Stoke players that got Stoke back into the game.

It's the third straight away match where Liverpool found a way to throw away a lead. Liverpool may want to do something to remedy that. Sure, Rodgers' hands were somewhat tied. Agger, Sakho, Enrique, and Flanagan injured meant that back four had to start, despite Johnson's complete loss of form, despite Skrtel's constant propensity for errors. Allen's injury, with Sturridge only fit enough for the bench, meant that Gerrard-Henderson-Lucas had to be the midfield, even if it was strange to see Gerrard as the deepest midfielder with Lucas in the link role. Conceding those goals and that lead were still very bad things, and even worse, things we've seen before.

But credit where due. Liverpool responded to the setback, regrouped at halftime. And, not long after, Liverpool were helped massively by a soft penalty. Not a dubious penalty, but a soft one. Sterling tore away on the counter, leaned into Wilson, and went down when Wilson threw his hip into him. It's a penalty. But it's a penalty we don't see given all the time. So, hey thanks for doing your job, Anthony Taylor. Gerrard stepped up, sending Butland the wrong way, restoring an advantage Liverpool wouldn't relent for the rest of the match. Though not for a lack of trying.

To be fair, the defensive and midfield, with the same players in the same positions, looked better organized, although there wasn't much room for regression given the way the first half ended. But Stoke didn't create a single chance from the restart until the 83rd minute. And by that time, Liverpool were again two goals to the good.

The key to that was the return of Daniel Sturridge, brought on for Coutinho in the 66th minute, almost immediately reviving his life-partnership with Luis Suarez. Five minutes after the Englishman's entrance, Liverpool had four, again exposing Stoke on the counter. Sturridge held up Gerrard's long pass, drawing defenders before playing a delightfully cheeky pass to Suarez in space inside the box, finished with all the aplomb you'd expect from a player with 22 goals in 16 league matches. It's the eighth time he's scored at least twice this season. That's 50% of the league matches he's played this season. That's preposterous.

And that should have been the final curtain. But Liverpool relaxed. And you can never relax at Stoke, not with those mouth-breathing mutants on the pitch and in the stands. Mignolet had to brilliantly claw Walters' header away in the 83rd minute – Stoke's first chance of the half – but should have done better a minute later, as Arnautovic's low cross found the same player, dancing around Toure before placing a shot that the Belgian could have saved. 4-3. Hearts back in stomach, testicles retreating back into the body, Stoke's goal swiftly followed by a Crouch free header thankfully well wide of goal.

But then Suarridge struck again, reversing their earlier roles. Again, Gerrard over the top, Sterling laying off for Suarez, Suarez's early cross finding Sturridge bursting into the box. Butland denied the first point-blank effort but Sturridge kept his bearings, somehow kept the ball from going out, heading the ball to himself to get back in front of goal before burying it into the net.

From there, Crouch hit the post, Gerrard nearly scored an own goal, but a two-goal lead for the third time in the match was finally enough. The third time's the charm.

So yeah, that was frightening and often less than fun. But that's Stoke. Traveling to Stoke, if you hadn't figured it out by now, is somewhere between "war crimes" and "prostate exam" on the scale of fun. Somehow, it was good enough, mainly thanks to the undying artistry from Suarez and Sturridge.

Liverpool's forwards were excellent – Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling. Liverpool's defense and midfield did *just* enough, and it was only enough because of how excellent Liverpool's strikers were. Stoke had 11 corners (and two free kicks in dangerous locations). Liverpool conceded three goals. And yet none of those goals came from one of those 13 set plays. Hey, that's progress. Stoke played 51 crosses, and Liverpool only conceded on two of them. Also progress.

On that ground, against that opposition, any way you can get three points is good enough. Especially when the side shows both the resilience and firepower they showed today.

11 January 2014

Liverpool at Stoke 01.12.14

11:10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.17.13
1-3 Stoke (a) 12.26.13
0-0 (h) 10.07.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 03.18.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Oldham (h); 2-0 Hull (h); 1-2 Chelsea (a)
Stoke: 2-1 Leicester (h); 1-1 Everton (h); 0-3 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 20; Sturridge 9; Gerrard, Sterling 3; Coutinho, Skrtel 2; Agger, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho 1
Stoke: Adam 4; Assaidi, Crouch 3; Ireland 2; Arnautovic, Begovic, Cameron, Nzonzi, Pennant, Shawcross, Walters 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Cissokho
Henderson Gerrard Lucas Coutinho
Suarez Sturridge

Slowly, Liverpool are recovering from injuries incurred over the last six weeks. Agger, Allen, Enrique and Flanagan are still absent, but Sturridge and Sakho should be back.

There seems two options if Sturridge is only fit enough for the bench. Sterling keeping his place seems more likely, with Gerrard and Henderson ahead of Lucas and Sterling and Coutinho on the flanks, or with Coutinho as #10 and Henderson and Sterling on the flanks. But there's also a small, very small, chance that Aspas keeps his place, keeping Liverpool in the above formation with Aspas in place of Sturridge.

Otherwise, the team seems to write itself, thanks to continuing absences. Sakho returning immediately after Agger's injury seems a boon and he'll almost certainly partner Skrtel, Gerrard will also start after playing 75 minutes against Oldham, Johnson and Cissokho pretty much have to be the full-backs.

Stoke have won four, drawn five, and lost just one at home this season. And Liverpool haven't won a league match at the Britannia since Stoke were promoted six seasons ago, losing the last three after drawing the first two meetings, although Liverpool did win a fourth round Carling Cup tie there en route to picking up the trophy in 2011-12.

Incidentally, Stoke's three top scorers, the only players with more than two league goals, are all either ex-Liverpool players or, in Assaidi's case, current Liverpool players. Even Jermaine Pennant's scored for Stoke this season. Stoke and West Ham are in a neck-and-neck battle to be Liverpool's Island of Misfit Toys, and Stoke's in the lead. As he's still a current Liverpool's player, Assaidi's ineligible tomorrow. Which is very much a good thing, as he's Stoke's most in-form player, and has scored the only two league goals that Stoke have scored since Boxing Day. Pennant seems the most likely to replace him, but Etherington and Arnautovic are also possibilities.

Stoke, like every other side at the moment, also have a handful of injury issues, with Begovic out, and Ireland, Huth, Sorensen, and Wilkinson questionable. Which makes Stoke's most likely XI: Butland; Cameron, Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters; Whelan, Nzonzi; Walters, Adam, Pennant; Crouch. If Ireland's fit, Adam probably starts on the left.

Stoke may have added a bit more passing and possession to their quiver, a bit more intelligence in attack despite the continuing lack of goals, but Stoke are still Stoke: physical, tight at the back, and more than happy to clog the midfield like red and white striped intestinal blockage. In attack, Liverpool will rely on Sterling and Coutinho's respective pace and guile to open up space via the flanks, creating room for Henderson and Gerrard's runs from midfield and Suarez and maybe Sturridge's individual brilliance. And then hope not to be taken apart on counter-attacks and set plays, as has happened too often at the Britannia, and painfully happened just a month ago at Hull.

We've heard time and time again that this is a different season, that this is a better Liverpool. And results so far, on the whole, have demonstrated that. A win on Stoke's rugby pitch tomorrow – a ground where Chelsea lost, where City and Everton could only draw – would go a long way in reinforcing that notion.

10 January 2014

Follow-up: More Maps, Better Maps [Interactive]

This time, the sequel is much, much better than the original.

As a follow-up to Wednesday's maps, two vastly superior interactive versions, courtesy of Eben Dennis.

The first is a more fun version of what I posted: one where you can zoom in, click on each continent and country, and get a full list of players from that region.

The full-size version is available here.

But much more impressive is this version, where you can see the city for each individual player, and click on a icon to get a few stats as well. Below is a screenshot, with a link that'll take you to the full map, which is far too detailed to embed. Go. Go now. You'll stay for at least an hour, or you have no soul.

These are wonderful, and I wish I could take full credit for them, but I absolutely cannot. Eben's website is Chartophile, for all your mapping needs, and if you're ever near Denver, Colorado on match day, I highly recommend checking out Colorado Reds.

And, as with the previous post, this simply could not be done without the data from LFCHistory.net.

08 January 2014

The Origin of Liverpool Players since 1992-93

I've been fighting with this off and on (mostly off) for a few months now. It's not getting any different. So, I present to you, the place of birth of all 198 players who've featured for Liverpool since the beginning of the Premier League (the 1992-93 season).

Click on the images to open full-size in a new window.

The full list of players and countries can be found in this Google Doc spreadsheet.


1) This list includes players who played in any competition, not just the Premier League. There have been 20 players to feature for Liverpool in the FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League, or Champions League, but not play in a Premiership match. They are highlighted in blue in the Google Doc linked above.

2) Players are categorized by place of birth, not the country they represent(ed) in international competition. This includes 12 players: Rob Jones, John Barnes, Bruce Grobbelaar, Phil Babb, Jason McAteer, Abel Xavier, Momo Sissoko, Mark Gonzalez, Nabil El Zhar, Raheem Sterling, Nuri Sahin, and Brad Smith. They are highlighted in red in the Google Doc linked above.

As usual, all data (read: place of birth, international team represented) from the invaluable LFCHistory.net

04 January 2014

Liverpool v Oldham 01.05.14

10am ET. I have no idea if it's live anywhere. The website I usually use for schedules says it's on LFCTV Online, but LFCTV's schedule only mentions audio commentary.

If it's on anywhere, there should be streams, but I'm less hopeful than usual. And, of course, I blame Fox Sports because they're the FA Cup rights holder in the USA.

Last four head-to-head:
2-3 Oldham (a; FA Cup) 01.27.13
5-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.06.12
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.15.94
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.16.93

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Hull (h); 1-2 Chelsea (a); 1-2 City (a)
Oldham: 1-2 Shrewsbury (h); 1-1 Coventry (a); 1-1 Sheffield Utd

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Suarez 19; Sturridge 11; Sterling 4; Gerrard 3; Coutinho, Henderson, Skrtel 2; Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Oldham: Philliskirk 10; Rooney 7; Clarke-Harris 6; Mellor 4; Dayton, Tarkowski 3; Baxter, Lanzoni, Montano 2; Grounds, Kusunga, Petrasso, Schmeltz, Smith, Wesolowski, Winchester 1

Referee: Stuart Attwell

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Toure Agger Cissokho
Gerrard Henderson
Aspas L Alberto Sterling

Your guess is as good as mine.

There will be changes, but Rodgers has a tendency not to heavily rotate in cup ties (last year's Europa League excepted). And last year's loss at Oldham will weigh in the memory.

So let's just go down the list. Mignolet started in both Carling Cup ties; I see no reason why Rodgers would start using Jones now.

If Martin Kelly's still alive, he could and should replace Johnson, but I'm not sure Martin Kelly's still alive. Sakho's injured, Skrtel's played more than any other defenders, Ilori's probably not getting his first start, which should lead to Toure and Agger at center-back. It's either Cissokho or 19-year-old Brad Smith at left-back, which almost certainly means it'll be Cissokho.

After coming on as a sub against Hull, Gerrard's hopefully ready to start, needing the match practice. Henderson's probably fresher than Lucas, needing one of those two to partner the captain in midfield. Liverpool have the most options in the attacking line of three: Aspas, Moses, Sterling, Alberto, and Coutinho are all in contention, although I'd hope the Brazilian will finally get a match off, which he clearly seems to need. Moses, on-loan and yet to impress, is another I'd leave out, but there's an argument for spelling Sterling after he's started the last eight matches, and it's not as if Aspas has impressed anyone in his few appearances either.

At least we know who'll start up front. As long as Suarez has all his appendages (and isn't suspended), he's in the line-up.

Oldham are 19th in League One, only outside the relegation zone on goal difference. Which is the exact same place they sat in the table when these two sides met 12 months ago. This is actually the third consecutive year that Liverpool have met Oldham in the FA Cup. It's a tradition that I could do without.

At least Liverpool's two biggest tormentors from last season's meeting are no longer with the club: former Evertonian Jose Baxter was sold to Sheffield United, burly striker Matt Smith joined Leeds on a free transfer.

I won't embarrass us both by trying to guess Oldham's XI, but will mention the last line-up used, in the 1-2 loss against Shrewsbury on New Year's Day: Oxley; Brown, Kusunga, Tarkowski, Grounds; Dayton, Smith, Mellor, Petrasso; Rooney, Clarke-Harris. That lineup contains just one player who started in last year's FA Cup tie, left-back Jonathan Grounds, formerly of Middlesborough. Australian central midfielder James Wesolowski, who played well in last year's meeting, would also feature if not for a fractured cheekbone suffered in the previous FA Cup round. Oldham's turnover from two years ago to last year to this season highlights just how transitory the lower leagues are.

Brendan Rodgers' son, Anton, plays for the Latics, but has only made seven league appearances this season, five of them off the bench, including in Oldham's last match against Shrewsbury. Oldham have also signed two players since the transfer window opened a few days ago: defender Adam Lockwood and midfielder Gary Harkins.

The FA Cup ranks fairly low on Liverpool's (admittedly short) list of priorities this season. That list is "league finish" followed by a mile or so of blank space before "FA Cup" and "League Cup." However, after the hectic, somewhat horrible last month of festive fixtures, Liverpool need to return to routine, winning form. And, of course, back on their own ground, Liverpool will want vengeance for last season's embarrassment.

Wednesday against Hull was a routine win. No matter the forecasted changes, tomorrow needs to be as well.

02 January 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Hull

Previous Match Infographics: Chelsea (a), Manchester City (a), Cardiff (h), Tottenham (a), West Ham (h), Norwich (h), Hull City (a), Everton (a), Fulham (h), Arsenal (a), West Brom (h), Newcastle (a), Crystal Palace (h), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Swansea (a), Manchester United (h), Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Yesterday's two goals were Liverpool's 14th and 15th from set plays this season. That's more than Liverpool scored in each of the previous four campaigns. The team scored 11 in 2012-13, 14 in 2011-12, 11 in 2010-11, and 14 in 2009-10, which is as far back as WhoScored's stats go. 32.6% of all of Liverpool's goals have come from set plays, and it's been a fairly healthy mix of set plays: four direct free kicks (three from Suarez, one from Gerrard), five indirect free kicks (scored by Suarez, Sturridge, Sakho, and Skrtel, as well as one own goal), and six corners (two by Sturridge, one from Skrtel, Coutinho, Suarez, and Agger; four taken by Gerrard, two by Coutinho).

Yesterday saw the fewest tackles and second-fewest interceptions Liverpool have made since I started doing these graphics at the beginning of last season. Only this season's 2-2 draw at Swansea had fewer interceptions. Liverpool simply weren't required to made last-ditch challenges (really, any challenges) or block off dangerous passes because of Hull's almost complete lack of threat. And Liverpool simply didn't have the legs to press in Hull's half, which helps explain why Liverpool didn't register a single tackle in the opposition half for the first time this season. The easing of the fixture list cannot come soon enough.

But Hull also had problems making both tackles and interceptions. Compare last month's defensive actions to yesterday's. Hull made 25 tackles and 25 interceptions at the KC Stadium, the vast majority just outside their own defensive third, which went a long way in preventing Liverpool from entering the danger zone. That brick wall was slightly less sturdy yesterday.

Still, Hull did defend well, as Hull has done almost all season, denying Liverpool an open play goal for the second consecutive meeting. Their complete inability in attack was far more damaging to yesterday's efforts.

As mentioned in the match review, Hull had zero shots on target yesterday. Zero. It's the second time this season that Liverpool's opponent failed to test Mignolet with even a single effort, after the 5-0 throttling Tottenham endured a few weeks ago. And it's not as if those were isolated incidents. Palace put just two on target, Fulham and West Ham just one. Liverpool have allowed 13.1 shotes per match this season, which is tied for 11th best in the league – but only 4.15 on-target per match, an accuracy of just 31.7%. Yes, Liverpool are still allowing too many shots – seriously, I watched yesterday's match, and I'm still not sure how Hull even managed 10 efforts – but for the most part, they're less threatening shots, restricted to less likely scoring positions. As Hull's were yesterday. None of Hull's shots came from "prime positions" – the middle of the penalty area – and only three of Hull's 10 came from inside the box: two were blocked, and one, from the far right corner of the area, was ballooned well off-target.

But it's not as if Liverpool's were at their most prolific either. Just six of Liverpool's 17 shots were on-target, which isn't far below Liverpool's season-long average of 41% shot accuracy. Of those six on target, two were goals, two were speculative at best from Coutinho and easily saved, and two were narrow angle blasts from Sterling and Coutinho straight at McGregor.

Going into this match, Liverpool had averaged 57.1% of its shots from inside the opponents' penalty area. Only 35.2% came inside the box yesterday. And it is something about Hull; four of Liverpool's nine shots in the reverse fixture were inside the box, and only one from the middle of the box. For just the fourth match this season – along with Southampton (h), West Brom (h), and City (a) – Liverpool weren't allowed any shots from inside the six yard box.

Coutinho epitomized Liverpool's difficulties, both in getting good shots and in hitting the target. Seven shots: three on-target, four off-target, five from outside the box. Which is actually one of his better shooting performances since returning from his most recent injury eight matches ago (seven starts, one substitute appearance).

He's taken 34 shots since coming on in the 66th minute at Hull. Just seven were on-target, an accuracy of just 20.6%. 16 were off-target, 11 were blocked. More infuriating was that only 14 came from inside the box. 21 were outside the box: three on-target (14.3%), 12 off-target (57.1%), and six blocked (28.6%). And only six of those 14 shots inside the box came from "prime positions," either the middle of the 18-yard box or the six-yard box. Well, just the middle of the 18-yard box because none came from inside the six-yard box. Two on-target, three off-target (two of which he should have scored from, including yesterday's chance on the stroke of halftime), and one blocked.

Better, but barely. No, Phil. Just no.

Unsurprisingly, his best display came against Manchester City, the match where he scored. City's tight defense allowed Coutinho just three shots, but two were inside the box and one from just outside. The two shots inside the box were on-target, the one from outside the box narrowly wide. Sometimes, less is more, Pippen.

01 January 2014

Liverpool 2-0 Hull

Agger 36'
Suarez 50'

That might not have been the performance Liverpool wanted, but it's the result Liverpool needed. After the packed fixture list and injury crises of the last month, that's more than sufficient.

And it's due to Liverpool's continued ability to take advantage of set plays and a surprisingly competent defensive performance. Liverpool still haven't scored an open play goal against Hull in 180 minutes of football – something I certainly wouldn't have predicted a month ago – but that didn't matter because Liverpool struck from a corner and direct free kick, and kept Hull from putting a single shot on target.

Both teams started with what seemed a New Years' Day hangover, Liverpool's far more throbbing than Hull's. It took 15 minutes for the headache and nausea to subside, to actually find some semblance of football coherence. The change in formation and personnel, thanks to the extensive casualty list, certainly didn't help matters. Liverpool shifted to 4-2-3-1, Aspas received his first Premiership start in 3 1/2 months.

Even after Liverpool began to "improve," chances were still hard to come by, Liverpool's record of romping at Anfield be damned. Credit where due, Steve Bruce's side is hard to break down, and I'm absolutely thrilled Liverpool are finishing facing them this season. In a sign of things to come, Liverpool's first genuine scoring opportunity came from a set play, Suarez heading Coutinho's free kick into the net, but just barely from an offside position. Not long after, Liverpool nearly opened Hull up on the break – the main strategy used in last month's meeting – but Sterling shot straight at McGregor from an acute angle.

Agger was the recipient of Liverpool's next two corners, eluding Alex Bruce's marking on both, winning headers right on the penalty spot, threatening with the first before scoring on the second. His downward header in the 36th minute found the back of the net with Henderson's help, distracting both keeper and defender on the line despite not making contact with the ball.

Unsurprisingly, the goal propelled Liverpool on, and they should have finished the half at least two goals to the good. But Henderson placed a shot wide from the top of the box with the goal gaping in the 42nd, Coutinho shot wide in acres of space inside the box after wonderfully controlling Henderson's chipped ball over the top. And had rookie referee Craig Pawson had any sense, Hull would have finished the half with 10 men, as Alex Bruce, already on a yellow card, kicked Suarez in the chest in the build-up to Henderson's glorious opportunity. It wasn't too dissimilar from the incident which saw Paulinho dismissed. This was Pawson's fifth Premier League match. I doubt he'll be doing any more for a while.

Once Liverpool got the needed second soon after the interval – another jaw-dropping Suarez free kick, his third of the season and from almost the same position Gerrard scored from in the reverse fixture – Liverpool completely shut the game down. The only thing the final 30 minutes were good for was Gerrard's match practice, replacing Aspas not long after the hour mark. Liverpool soaked up Hull's barely threatening pressure without breaking much of a sweat, Liverpool attempted to get a third by counter-attacking quickly, Liverpool contrived to foul up their few counter-attacking opportunities. Toure came on for Johnson, still underwhelming (to put it nicely) and apparently yet another Liverpool player who picked up an injury during this hectic period; Moses came on for Sterling. Liverpool eased its way to victory without doing themselves any damage, either through further injuries or by conceding sloppily.

Hull took 10 shots today. Four were off-target, six were blocked, eight of 10 came from outside the box. Eight of those shots came after Liverpool already had its two-goal lead. Hull are certainly not the most threatening side, especially away from home, even considering the three goals scored when these sides met at the KC Stadium, but Liverpool's defending was probably the most encouraging feature of today's match. Both Johnson and Cissokho, especially the latter, were put under pressure early, but while both bent at times, neither broke. Skrtel and Agger easily coped with Sagbo and Koren. Hull's 58th minute triple substitution – bringing on Fryatt, Graham, and Boyd for Sagbo, Koren, and Meyler – did little to change the pattern of play. Hull attacked more because Liverpool let them attack more. It'd have been so very Liverpool to concede a goal they shouldn't have, putting the side under unnecessary pressure; you know, exactly what happened against West Ham a couple of weeks ago. But Liverpool didn't.

This was Liverpool's first 2-0 win since December 2011, the first 2-0 win of Rodgers' tenure. And Suarez is now the fastest to reach 20 goals in the Premier League, needing 15 games to hit that tally. Kevin Phillips, the previous record holder, needed 21. The Uruguayan's also the first Liverpool player to hit 20 league goals in back to back seasons since Fowler did it in 1994-1995 and 1995-96. He's pretty special, even if Hull (and Craig Pawson) gave him next to nothing in open play.

Liverpool's fixture list will finally ease in the coming weeks. Liverpool's injury list will as well, with Gerrard back, and Sturridge, Enrique, and Flanagan not far behind him. Thanks to Stoke's draw with Everton, Liverpool are back in fourth, if only by a single point.

The next four matches are against at Stoke, against Villa, against Everton, and at West Brom. Four matches where Liverpool should be favored. Liverpool took just a single point from those four fixtures last season, drawing with Everton and losing in the other three.

If Liverpool have any pretensions of securing a Champions League, they'll have to vastly improve on last season's performances and results. It might not have been an impressive start to 2014, but nonetheless, today was a start towards achieving that.