28 April 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea

Previous Match Infographics: Norwich (a), Manchester City (h), West Ham (a), Tottenham (h), Sunderland (h), Cardiff (a), Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), Fulham (a), Arsenal (h), West Brom (a), Everton (h), 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.

"Defensive football is, as the great Italian theorist Gianni Brera put it, 'the right of the weak.'" - Jonathan Wilson

It's infuriating. It's a bit embarrassing for the second-most expensively assembled side in the league. I very much never want to watch a Liverpool side play that way week in and out. But football is about getting the result, by any means necessary, and Mourinho's concentrated evil got that result.

It may have been under a different manager, but that's exactly how Chelsea won a Champions League as well. Good football is good, glory is great, but the result is what matters.

Yesterday saw Liverpool's biggest possession disparity of the season, the biggest disparity in passes attempted, the second-biggest disparity in passes completed (behind 3-2 at Fulham), and the fourth-biggest shot disparity (behind 3-1 Cardiff, 4-1 West Ham, and 4-0 Fulham, all at Anfield).

Liverpool had 74.1% possession, completed 383 more passes, and took 15 more shots. And Liverpool lost 0-2, its first two-goal loss at Anfield since suffering the same scoreline against West Brom more than 14 months ago.

But we learned long ago (read: 2011-12 and 2012-13) that winning passing, possession, and shot totals don't equal winning the game.

First and foremost was where those Liverpool shots took place. I'm gonna blow it up in a bigger graphic, because the compressed Stats Zone or Squawka chalkboard doesn't seem weighty enough.

Yikes. 21 of 26 shots came from outside the box. That's remarkable, and not in a good way. I am not clever enough with statistics to figure out "Expected Goals" but I imagine Liverpool's were pretty low yesterday. But, to be fair, Liverpool's been well out-performing Expected Goals all season long. Regression to the mean, and all that.

Not only was the shot location bad, the shooting accuracy was bad too. Liverpool's first shot on target came in the 52nd minute, the 11th shot taken. Eight of 26 on target, 30.77% shooting accuracy. Which, devoid of context, isn't awful, but still below Liverpool's 40.1% for the season. And the sixth-lowest accuracy of the season, behind Villa (a), Newcastle (a), West Ham (h), Cardiff (h), and West Brom (a). Where Liverpool won three and drew two, scoring at least once in all five.

Nine of Liverpool's 26 shots came from Steven Gerrard, which is the most shots he's taken in a match this season, by far. His previous high was six in the 5-1 win against Norwich. The only other match where he took more than three was at Manchester United, attempting five, three of which were penalties.

I'm not going to excoriate Gerrard for slipping. Shit happens, and often at the most inopportune time. It's horrific luck, made even more horrific by the fact it's Gerrard, the symbol of Liverpool, the captain who's given all he can to this title run, deservedly mentioned as one of the best midfielders in the league this season. And against Chelsea, of all teams. I can't help but mention the 2005 Carling Cup Final. The worst luck.

But yesterday was a return to the (sometimes) bad old days of one-man Liverpool. If not Gerrard than no one; he'll do it himself. Nine shots. Nine! Eight from outside the box. He'd taken 51 in his previous 31 appearances this season, and that includes free kicks and penalties. And Gerrard also attempted 27 more passes than the next closest player.

Give Gerrard the ball and hope he can do something. Stand off and let him go to work. Frustrated outside Chelsea's box? Gerrard will let fly. We'd seen next to none of that this season, not even in the other matches where Liverpool had to overhaul a deficit. He was absolutely dying to make amends for the mistake that gave Chelsea the lead, but his single-minded second half play was almost (but obviously not quite) as costly as the mistake.

Obviously, Gerrard wasn't the only culprit. Suarez – just named the PFA Player of the Year – was denied absolutely any space to operate, attempting just two take-ons. He's averaging 7.25 per match this season. Sterling and Coutinho saw a lot of the ball, but couldn't play the killer ball, forced to pass pass pass outside Chelsea's box. Sturridge, sadly, clearly wasn't fit. Liverpool's attackers all got into positions to create something at least once, even if it was a marginal chance, but couldn't convert, and were mostly marked into oblivion by four defenders, three holding midfielders, and two wingers who spent more time in their own half than Liverpool's.

Still, it's infuriating that Liverpool repeatedly and increasingly tried to force shots from distance rather than shake and bake through a packed defense with patient build-up, which we'd seen time and time again this season. It's not as if Chelsea are the first side to park the bus against Liverpool this season, even if they were the best.

Plan A was shots from distance. Plan B was crosses. And in case you hadn't noticed, Liverpool is not a team that thrives on crosses.

"You went full Moyes, man. Never go full Moyes."

42 crosses is, by far, Liverpool's high for the season. They'd averaged 17 per match through the first 35 games this season, the fewest in the league. And only eight were successful, just three actually leading to a chance.

All of this led to just the third time Liverpool were held scoreless this season, after the 0-1 loss to Southampton in September and the 0-2 loss at Arsenal in November. It's been nearly six months, and 28 matches, since that last happened.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Liverpool panicked, for the first time in a long time. That it had to happen at least once seems inevitable in retrospect, and it's absolutely amazing that it hadn't happened sooner, but they still picked a bad time to do so.

Credit where due, as painful as it is. Chelsea's gonna Chelsea, and Chelsea Chelsea'd really, really well.

27 April 2014

Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea

Ba 45+3'
Willian 90+4'

As if you ever needed more evidence that there is no justice in this universe. Once again, it's always the hope that kills you.

Today was Mourinho's Big Book of Crimes Against Football, chapter by chapter. Time-wasting, bus parking, taking the ball to the corner flag in attack, sly kicks at ankles after the play's gone. So much time-wasting. Time-wasting that'd make Tony Pulis blush.

It blunted Liverpool from the opening whistle to the final whistle, denying Liverpool the fast start that'd seen them win an unbelievable 11 consecutive matches. Liverpool had two early chances – one through Sterling and Suarez's brilliance, one from a set play – but Chelsea did incredibly well to take any steam out of Liverpool's early threat. Because that's what Mourinho's Chelsea does. Three of Chelsea's four defenders aren't regulars, one was making his league debut, but they defended as well as any Chelsea side I'd seen this season, aided by both Matic and Mikel camped just in front of them. And every other Chelsea player other than Ba camped in the defensive third as well.

And, of course, that time-wasting indirectly led to Chelsea's goal. In the third minute of first half added time, Gerrard – of all people, because the universe wants to punch Liverpool in the stomach as hard as it can – slips under no pressure. Ba through on goal, and coolly sliding it between Mignolet's legs with both Liverpool center-backs unable to recover. Insert all your "THIS DOES NOT FUCKING SLIP" jokes here. Hilarious. I'm gonna die laughing. Or just die.

45 minutes to get it back. Sturridge, not fit enough to start, and evidently barely fit enough for the bench, brought on in the 58th minute. But despite those 45 minutes of unceasing Liverpool pressure, Chelsea hung on. They're the last side you want to chase a lead against, even with a "weakened" side full of 11 internationals (even if one of those internationals, Kalas, was making his league debut). At times, it felt like Chelsea had 12, 13, 14 defenders. Credit where due and all that. Ugh. Mourinho's gonna Mourinho, and that's why he Mourinhos.

It's fruitless to list all the Liverpool chances against the blue wall in the second half. There were tons of them – 78.2% possession leading to 17 shots in those 45 minutes – but it's also worth noting that 15 of those 17 shots came from outside the box, 21 of Liverpool's 26 shots in total from outside the box. That's 81%. That's more than I've ever seen, at least from Liverpool. And eight of those second half shots, seven from outside the box, came from Steven Gerrard, which seems like more open play shots than he's had all season, furiously trying to make amends for the mistake that lost Liverpool the match, visions of Olympiakos and West Ham dancing through his head. But failing to make amends.

And it ended not with a bang but a whimper, Liverpool almost wholly unable to create anything in the final 10 minutes, except a blast from Suarez following a corner that shouldn't have been, sent too close to Mark Schwarzer. That Chelsea would rub salt, all the salt, in the wounds with a counter-attacking goal – again, in the last minute of time added because of their time-wasting – was inevitable. At least it was Willian, not Torres, with both put through on goal with every Liverpool player forward in search of the goal that just wouldn't come. I guess. Makes it approximately 2% less painful.

It's almost fitting that this is what often doomed Liverpool's title hopes under Benitez: an inability to break down sides that do nothing but pack the defense. This time it happened against Chelsea, rather than the Stoke, West Ham, or Wigans of the world.

But Liverpool's title hopes aren't doomed just yet. Yes, it's not in Liverpool's hands anymore. But it's a setback, not a death knell. Both Liverpool and Manchester City can earn a maximum of 86 points. City are currently +6 on goal difference, prior to kickoff against Crystal Palace, a number that'll be hard to overcome. But Liverpool have the points on the board; City still need to win four in a row. Liverpool *just* two.

How Liverpool respond to its first league loss in 2014 will still going a long way in deciding whether Liverpool can finally break this 24-year title drought.

26 April 2014

Liverpool v Chelsea 04.27.14

9:05am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Chelsea (a) 12.29.13
2-2 (h) 04.21.13
1-1 (a) 11.11.12
4-1 Liverpool (h) 05.08.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Norwich (a); 3-2 City (h); 2-1 West Ham (a)
Chelsea: 0-0 Atletico (a); 1-2 Sunderland (h); 1-0 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 30; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 13; Sterling 9; Skrtel 7; Coutinho 5; Henderson 4; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Chelsea: Hazard 14; Eto'o 9; Oscar 8; Schürrle 7; Lampard 6; Ba, Torres 4; Ivanovic, Willian 3; Salah, Terry 2; Cahill, Mikel, Ramires 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Flanagan
Allen Coutinho
Sturridge Suarez

Repent, sinners, for the end is near.

Three matches left, with Liverpool five points clear, starting with Jose Mourinho bringing his mercenaries to Anfield. It's not the final hurdle – there are two more, and the next is arguably as tough as this one – but, of course, with the finish line in sight, Mourinho's standing in the way.

Will Daniel Sturridge be fit to start against his former club?

If he is – and we truly hope he is – how does it affect the rest of the line-up and formation? One of Allen or Lucas would almost certainly make way. And would Liverpool revert to the 4-4-2 diamond or the 4-3-3?

That Liverpool went with the diamond formation against City two weeks ago seems telling. Rodgers had played 4-3-3 against Everton, Arsenal, and Tottenham at home, but changed it for City. And City presented similar problems as Chelsea will: a 4-2-3-1 system; mobile, fluid attackers in the line of three, all of whom want to come inside; width primarily from the fullbacks; a striker who'll come deep to try to hold up play and involve the midfield runners.

And Allen was better than Lucas the last time Liverpool played. In theory, Lucas is the more defensive option, the safer option, but Allen's been no slouch defensively, provides more in attack, and replicates more of the non-stop running that Liverpool desperately miss with Henderson absent. As much as it pains me, Lucas did not look good as one of the wider midfielders against Norwich, but he could still be quite useful as a defensive-minded substitution tomorrow. Rodgers might also start both Allen and Lucas, leaving Coutinho on the bench for more midfield solidity, but that seems quite unlikely.

If Sturridge is unavailable (or only fit enough for the bench), it'll be the same system, and most likely the same XI, as at Norwich last week. The only potential difference would be Agger for Sakho. Which I think should happen regardless of formation or the other 10 Liverpool players, but Rodgers does very much prefer a settled defense.

This week has mostly been about Mourinho's "mind games," prioritizing the Champions League supposedly at the expense of tomorrow's XI, again charged with misconduct by the FA for his post-match comments last weekend. I suspect it's less about the Champions League's importance and more about the fact that Chelsea are now rank outsiders for the title, exemplified by Mourinho's tirade after an unthinkable home loss against Sunderland, a tirade that'll probably cost him a five-figure fine.

The last time Chelsea rested players against Liverpool before a crucial Champions League tie was the last time Liverpool beat Chelsea: a 4-1 win at Anfield in May 2012. But this is a very different Chelsea, even if it's also a very different Liverpool.

Ramires is suspended after elbowing Larsson last week against Sunderland. (Incidentally, Ramires was also suspended for the reverse fixture; yes, he is "that sort of player.") Terry and Cech are definitely out through injury; Eto'o and Hazard – Chelsea's two top scorers – almost certainly are as well. Some of this "weakened" team will be by default.

Since putting six past Arsenal, Chelsea have struggled for goals in the league, at least comparatively. They scored three against Stoke, but were shut out at Crystal Palace, and scored just one against both Sunderland and Swansea. It's no coincidence that's mostly happened without Hazard, who hasn't featured since suffering a calf injury in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against PSG. His last league appearance was as a substitute against Stoke, where he played a crucial role in the two Chelsea second-half goals which won them the match.

Lampard and John Obi Mikel are suspended for the second leg against Atletico; Matic and Salah are cup-tied. So it's probably safe to assume those four will be involved. No matter what Mourinho says, there seemingly have to be a few players who'll also feature on Wednesday. Chelsea have the players to fully rotate in midfield and attack, but there aren't a ton of alternatives in defense, especially at fullback.

My best guess at tomorrow's XI is Schwarzer; Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Cole; Matic, Mikel; Salah, Lampard, Schürrle; Ba. Maybe Nathan Ake or Tomas Kalas plays in defense rather than Luiz or Cahill. Maybe even both, if Mourinho's actually being honest. Both of them can play at fullback as well – Kalas on the right, Ake on the left – but it's not their preferred position. Maybe van Ginkel, recently back from a long-term injury, starts rather than Mikel. Because Mikel. Maybe Oscar does, as he didn't start at Atletico.

Chelsea still have options. The above guess, or the possible permutations, clearly isn't Chelsea's strongest line-up, but it's still a very strong line-up. And Chelsea will remain Chelsea, Mourinho will remain Mourinho: defend strongly, then break quickly.

If they've any chance of winning the league, Chelsea have to win. A Liverpool win gives the Reds 83 points; Chelsea couldn't finish with more than 81. A draw isn't much better for Mourinho's side, leaving them five points behind Liverpool with only six left up for grabs.

But Liverpool need the points as well. A loss means that City can overtake Liverpool on goal difference even if Liverpool win their subsequent two fixtures, and would put Chelsea just two points behind Liverpool. A draw means Liverpool would have to win both subsequent fixtures to keep it from going to goal difference. And one of those fixtures is at Crystal Palace, which is no easy prospect.

Liverpool are inches away from ending their Premier League title drought. Inches. It is tangibly close. But there are no fingers on the trophy just yet. It's not as if Liverpool have been playing without pressure for the last 11 matches, the last 11 wins, but now the pressure's really on, pressure heavy enough to crumple steel or turn coal into diamonds.

So shine on, you crazy diamonds.

21 April 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Norwich

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), West Ham (a), Tottenham (h), Sunderland (h), Cardiff (a), Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), Fulham (a), Arsenal (h), West Brom (a), Everton (h), 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.

Yesterday's first and second goals were Liverpool's 57th and 58th first half goals this season, which accounts for 60% of Liverpool's league goals this season.

That's an amazing amount.

Compare that to 2012-13 or 2011-12, where Liverpool scored 42.9% and 40.5% of the goals in the first half (all competitions). Or 2008-09, where 64 of Liverpool's 106 goals (again, all competitions) came in the second half, including 36 after the 75th minute. So many late comebacks that season.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing when you blow teams out of the water before they even settle: Arsenal (h), Everton (h), Tottenham (home and away), etc. But it can be a bad thing when Liverpool sits on said lead, inviting teams onto a defense too often prone to mistakes: Stoke (a), Swansea (h), and Norwich yesterday, as well as a fair few more. It'd be a different story if Liverpool could hold onto a lead, could strange the life out of a match when two goals up. But, despite the unbelievable league position, this is still very much a team in progress. And yet, Liverpool somehow keep winning.

It's also easier to get back into a game when you've nothing to lose, as Sunderland demonstrated against both City and Chelsea this week. That's not to take anything away from Neil Adams and Norwich; the tactical changes at halftime most definitely improved the home side, and they were able to take advantages of the weaknesses in Liverpool's system and personnel.

Matching Liverpool's christmas tree with a diamond meant Liverpool's five central midfielders were able to cancel out Norwich's strength in the middle. Liverpool's threat on the counter-attack through Suarez, Sterling, and Coutinho – even with Sturridge absent – helped to restrain Norwich's fullbacks, which is where the width almost always comes from in a 4-4-2 diamond.

But when Norwich switched to a 4-3-3, getting Redmond and Snodgrass into wider positions, pinning Liverpool's fullbacks back and forcing Lucas and Allen to do more defensive work wide, Norwich were the better side. Just as an example, Joe Allen led Liverpool with 10 tackles, but seven of those ten came in the first half. And it's no coincidence that both of Norwich's goals, as well as van Wolfswinkel's chance to equalize in the 83rd minute, came from crosses.

From 34.1% possession in the first half to 50.9% possession in the second. The passing chalkboards are even more emphatic, both for Norwich and for Liverpool.

Norwich using more of the pitch in the second half, getting the ball out wide in the final third. Liverpool much more reliant on long balls, and unable to pass across the back to take the sting out of the match.

Norwich did a much better job pressing Liverpool's defenders in the second half, ensuring they couldn't rest on the ball and hold possession as they did in the opening 45 minutes, pressing more effectively with three front players spread across the width of the pitch than with the two out-and-out strikers in the first half. Eight of Norwich's 22 successful tackles and eight of the 17 interceptions came in Liverpool's half. Seven of those eight tackles and four of those eight interceptions came in the second half.

But Liverpool still found a way to win, have found a way to win for the last 11 matches, with six of those wins by a solitary goal (including four of the last five). Liverpool's mentality, Liverpool's resiliency, has been the most amazing facet of this amazing run-in, keeping their just enough of their nerve to do what's required, no matter the set-backs endured in the previous four seasons.

Long may it continue. At least for the next three matches.

20 April 2014

Liverpool 3-2 Norwich

Sterling 4' 62'
Suarez 11'
Hooper 54'
Snodgrass 77'

"You didn't think it was gonna be that easy, did you?" "For a second there, yeah I kinda did…"


When Gerrard shouted, "We go to Norwich. Exactly the same. We go again.” in the aftermath of last week's victory, I don't think this is what he meant.

With two Liverpool goals within 11 minutes, you figured it'd be another crushing victory at Carrow Road. The absence of both Sturridge and Henderson seemed irrelevant. Lucas and Allen come in, Rodgers changes the formation to a 4-3-2-1 christmas tree – the eighth different formation we've seen this season – and Sterling runs riot, an atomic bomb from distance to open the scoring, then a perfect assist after a long passing move so Suarez can continue his Canary killing streak.

But rather than keeping the boot on Norwich's neck, Liverpool began to play passively, happy to soak up pressure, look to counter, and if it wasn't on, keep possession in its own half.

On the whole, it worked well enough for 45 minutes. Liverpool did well to limit Norwich's chances, led by Joe Allen, who made seven tackles and won 11 of 12 ground duels in the first half. Allen's two crucial blocks following a Norwich set play, Mignolet parrying Redmond's shot from distance, and Redmond's shot-slash-cross wide were Norwich's only chances of the half. Unfortunately, no matter how well Sterling played – and it was quite well – Liverpool's counter-attack isn't the same without Daniel Sturridge. Liverpool's only two threatening moments after the opening goals were Allen's shot from distance in the 26th minute and Coutinho's curler just before halftime, both narrowly wide of the far post.

The match would have been very different had Robert Snodgrass been sent off for an incredibly frustrated tackle on Allen in the 29th minute, both very late and high. But Snodgrass wasn't sent off, Marriner most likely taking pity on a two-goals-down, relegation-battling Norwich at home. And then that second half happened.

Liverpool began the same way after the restart, but were facing a very different Norwich. Neil Adams shifted the system, changing to more of a 4-2-3-1 with Redmond and Snodgrass playing wider and getting at Liverpool's fullbacks, getting crosses into the box. And those crosses troubled Liverpool, those crosses led to both of Norwich's goals.

The first was eminently regrettable. The first simply should not have happened. Skrtel had been imperious all match long, but when Whittaker crossed from deep following a throw-in, Mignolet rushed out of his goal to try to punch rather than leaving it for the Slovakian. Heeding the keeper's call, Skrtel didn't contest Bradley Johnson's header, but also couldn't get out of the way, meaning Mignolet made weak contact with the ball, pushing it directly into an unmarked Hooper's path.

The second was almost as bad. Another cross from a Norwich fullback – this time Olsson, this time the opposite flank – Flanagan wholly out-muscled and out-jumped by Snodgrass, a free header that Mignolet had no chance of keeping out. Such are the perils of a formation that concedes the flanks, especially with neither Liverpool fullback covering himself in glory in the second half.

Sandwiched between Norwich's strikes was a goal that should have sealed the game. Finally, a counter-attack coming to fruition, even if fortunately: Sterling intercepting Johnson's hospital ball across the pitch and tearing at three Norwich defenders along with Suarez. Suarez was the decoy as Sterling kept running, cutting inside, seemingly overplaying but a fortunate deflection off Johnson looped his shot over Ruddy. It's better to be lucky and good, etc.

Liverpool had had a few chances on the break following Hooper's strike, but Suarez's first was hit tamely at Ruddy, his second drifted just. Both were chances you'd expect him to seize, especially against his favorite opposition. But it was Raheem Sterling who got the break and made the break-through.

Once again, you'd expect Liverpool to keep the boot on Norwich's neck after scoring the third. But it was Stoke, Sunderland, Cardiff, City all over again, with Liverpool hanging on by fingernails and heart attacks for everyone. Agger's introduction for Allen in the 81st minute, switching to something of a 5-2-3, helped matters, but Norwich could and should have equalized in the 83rd: another deep cross, this time from Redmond, but van Wolfswinkel's header after eluding Sakho was straight at Mignolet. Liverpool were very lucky that chance fell to a player who hadn't scored since opening day, who has just nine shots on target all season.

Thankfully, that was Norwich's last terrifying chance despite continued possession, and Liverpool could and should have made in 4-2 in injury time. First, Suarez volleyed high and wide, but in the the 93rd minute, a Liverpool break and typical tricky feet from Suarez led to two Lucas (!!!) chances from eight yards out. Ruddy saved the first, Olsson blocked the second. It had to be Lucas. Sigh.

No matter. Liverpool held on. They've had so many chances to shit the bed in the final 10-15 minutes during this 11-match winning streak: at Cardiff, Sunderland, and West Ham; against Fulham, Swansea, and City. But they haven't. They've somehow held their nerve, somehow held on for the win, winning six of these 11 matches by a single goal.

Despite the blitzkrieg start, today's match obviously left a lot to be desired. Sterling, Skrtel, Allen (especially in the first half), and Gerrard were excellent, but Liverpool's fullbacks disappointed and Liverpool's defense still looks rickety at times. As much as I love Lucas, that wasn't his position, and I'm not sure he has a position with the way Liverpool (and Gerrard) have been playing. Rodgers' alterations with both Sturridge and Henderson absent started well, but couldn't and didn't last, and Liverpool weaknesses in depth were exemplified by Moses's introduction, first off the bench but adding next to nothing.

But none of that matters. It's three more points, it's an 11th straight win. Liverpool have now qualified for the Champions League group stage; they cannot finish worse than third. More importantly, Liverpool lead the league by five points with three matches left.

This is gone. We go against Chelsea. Maybe not exactly the same, but we go again.

Three more games for greatness.

19 April 2014

Liverpool at Norwich 04.20.14

7am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
5-1 Liverpool (h) 12.04.13
5-0 Liverpool (h) 01.19.13
5-2 Liverpool (a) 09.29.12
3-0 Liverpool (a) 04.28.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 City (h); 2-1 West Ham (a); 4-0 Tottenham (h)
Norwich: 0-1 Fulham (a); 0-1 West Brom (h); 0-3 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 29; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 13; Skrtel, Sterling 7; Coutinho 5; Henderson 4; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Norwich: Hooper, Snodgrass 5; Fer, Johnson 3; Howson 2; R Bennett, Elmander, Hoolahan, Pilkington, Redmond, Tettey, Whittaker, van Wolfswinkel 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Flanagan
Lucas Allen
Sterling Suarez Coutinho

Will Sturridge be available and who replaces the suspended Henderson?

How Liverpool cope with Henderson's absence partly depends on Sturridge. If he's fit, it's a simple question: either Lucas or Allen replace Henderson in something of a straight swap. And I strongly suspect it'd be Allen.

“It’s vital you have players who can come in and do a fantastic job. We’re fortunate to have both Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen. They have both shown their qualities, particularly Joe in recent weeks. When he’s had the chance to play, he has been exceptional. I said when he first came to the club that Joe is an outstanding player. As time goes on and he starts to show that, what the club paid for Joe will be a bargain. You look at other midfielders with his qualities, they are going to big clubs for £40million. Joe is perfectly suited to this way of working. I have no doubt that in years to come he will be deemed a snip at £15million.”

- Brendan Rodgers

Neither Allen nor Lucas can replicate Henderson's pressing or overall work rate, but Allen's better able to make Henderson's attacking runs forward and link play in attack, and that'll be more important against Norwich than Lucas' patience passing and defensive capabilities.

But Sturridge's absence would render that debate moot; both will probably start if he's unavailable.

There's no like-for-like replacement for Daniel Sturridge. Aspas is the closest, but he's had next to no impact on the season since the first few matches. So you seemingly change the system, going back to what worked when Sturridge was absent in December, including in the 5-1 win against tomorrow's opponents. Sterling and Coutinho flanking Suarez, three midfielders behind, with at least one if not two of those midfielders joining the attack early and often.

Liverpool could also retain the diamond formation with Sturridge missing; Raheem Sterling seems more than capable of playing up front with Suarez, his pace suited to taking him behind Norwich's defenders, his runs pulling those defenders out of position to create space for Suarez. Coutinho at the apex of the diamond – chances are, he'll cut inside often in the 4-3-3 anyway – with Allen and Lucas the wide midfielders, and Gerrard at the base.

There is one other option: using Coutinho rather than Lucas in midfield if Liverpool play 4-3-3, and starting Moses in the front three. It's what The Guardian guessed in its match preview. But it's also frighteningly similar to the lineup Liverpool used in the 1-3 loss at Hull. So yeah, maybe not.

Regardless of formation, Luis Suarez will be crucial, the butcher of East Anglia in his last four matches against Norwich. 11 goals in those four matches; two hat-tricks in the two matches he's played at Carrow Road. That Suarez could keep up this one-man crusade against the Canaries seems unlikely, if not impossible. His shooting accuracy in those four matches was 64%. Six of those 11 goals came outside the box, including three unfathomably spectacular strikes. One of those days he'll regress to the mean. He has to. But I hope it won't be tomorrow.

Norwich are not in a good place right now. They've lost their last three, lost seven of the 11 since February 1. From 12th place on January 31 to 17th today, outside of the relegation zone by just two points, and with their last four games against Liverpool, United, Chelsea, and Arsenal.

Last Saturday was supposed to be the bulwark. Last Saturday was the reason Norwich fired Hughton, hoping to catalyze the side going into the six-pointer against woeful Fulham. It did not work as expected, losing 0-1, to give Fulham a slight ray of hope, and to drag Norwich further down into the morass.

Norwich played something of a diamond formation in that loss to Fulham, with Redmond and van Wolfswinkel as the strikers. It did not work especially well, as Norwich continued to Norwich despite the change in formation and manager. The away side started the better side and had some golden chances, but were denied by a combination of poor finishing, bad luck, and excellent goalkeeping. That inability to score has been the story of the season. No side has fewer league goals than Norwich; Suarez has three more than Norwich by himself. Then they conceded against the run of play late in the first half, and subsequently never looked as threatening as they did before Fulham struck.

So I've little idea how Norwich will line up tomorrow. I suspect it'll be similar to last Saturday, with Ruddy; Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Olsson; Johnson, Howson; Snodgrass, Fer, Redmond; Van Wolfswinkel, in either the 4-4-2 diamond or the more familiar 4-3-2-1 that Hughton usually used. But maybe Hooper or Elmander or both start instead, in the hopes of finding goals from somewhere. Maybe Hoolahan or Murphy start in midfield, in the hopes of adding more creativity. Adams has next to no track record, and it's not as if any of Norwich's players (especially in the front six) have nailed down a starting spot.

As against Sunderland, it's the archetypal trap game. Liverpool on a ten-match win streak away to a truly struggling side. Liverpool, missing two key players. Norwich, fighting for Premiership survival. It'd be too easy to look past tomorrow's match, to next week's supposedly season-deciding fixture against Chelsea. Thankfully, this is a side that rarely looked like falling into those traps.

And it's a side that still has Luis Suarez, the killer of Canaries and curse of Carrow Road.

So we go again.

17 April 2014

Liverpool Players' Goals by Game State [Infographic]

Luis Suarez is the king of scoring when Liverpool are already ahead – 21 of his 29 goals came with Liverpool in the lead – although Sterling's quite good at is as well. Which is little surprise considering how dangerous both are on the counter-attack, when running at defenders.

Conversely, 77% of Gerrard's 13 goals have been with Liverpool either tied or behind by a goal, including all three of his non-penalty goals. 80% of Coutinho's five goals came in the same situation.

Skrtel's the only player with more than one goal to have scored all of his goals with the game 'still in the balance' – one goal with Liverpool behind by a goal (at Cardiff), three goals to give Liverpool the lead (at Chelsea, v Arsenal, and at Cardiff), and three goals with Liverpool ahead by just one (v Fulham, v Arsenal, v City).

Liverpool have scored only once when behind by two goals: Sturridge against Villa, a match that Liverpool went on to draw. Although, to be fair, Liverpool have been behind by two goals for just 42 minutes this season: for 31 minutes in the 0-2 loss at Arsenal, for the last three minutes of the 1-3 loss at Hull, and for eight minutes against Villa.

And, strangely, all four of the own goals scored by Liverpool's opponent happened with the score tied. Liverpool went on to win all four of those matches. As I've said more than a few times this season, it's better to be lucky and good.

Here's another way of looking at it.

15 April 2014

14 April 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (a), Tottenham (h), Sunderland (h), Cardiff (a), Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), Fulham (a), Arsenal (h), West Brom (a), Everton (h), 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.

I'm still fairly amazed that both Coutinho and Sterling started in a diamond formation. Sterling reaped more of the plaudits, wonderfully scoring the first, setting up what should have been the second for Sturridge, and terrorizing City's midfield and defense. Pellegrini did not expect that set-up, and it most definitely led to Liverpool's mesmerizing start. Incidentally, that unpredictably has been a massive factor in Liverpool's fast starts: managers now don't know what to expect from Rodgers' Liverpool, only that they're most likely going straight for your throat.

Coutinho, in even more of an unfamiliar role, was just as impressive when Liverpool were in control of the game. He's rarely looked like an orthodox central midfielder while at Liverpool, even during his best performances in the 4-3-3. But that's exactly what he was yesterday.

Only Sakho attempted or completed more passes for Liverpool yesterday. Coutinho's six tackles were a high in yesterday's match, and a high for Coutinho this season. And every tackle he attempted was successful. But five of those six tackles, all five on the right flank, came in the furious first half.

Liverpool needed those performances from Sterling and Coutinho with both Suarez and Sturridge off-form. Part of that was due to City's defense, even with a mistake prone Kompany. They'd conceded the second-fewest goals in the league prior to this match, behind only Chelsea, for a reason. In addition, Zabaleta and Clichy were more hesitant to get forward than usual, much more concerned with doubling up on Liverpool's strikers, sealing off the channels where both can be so dangerous.

Combined, Suarez and Sturridge took just three shots, all off-target; created just one chance, which was Suarez's throughball for the first goal; and completed just two of 17 attempted take-ons. Sterling, in contrast, was successful with six of his eight attempted take-ons. Yes, Suarez should have also won a penalty – Clattenburg most likely ignoring the shout because of his previous histrionics – but City could have won two. And we've still no word on whether Sturridge will miss any time having gone off with what appeared to be a hamstring injury in the 66th minute. It was more than encouraging to see Liverpool able to beat one of the best (if not the best) sides in the league without those two on form, demonstrating how impressive Liverpool have become as a team, but they'll definitely be needed over the next month. At least next week's match is at Norwich. Suarez is already sharpening his knives in anticipation.

All five of yesterday's goals were fairly respective of the sides that scored them. Three from Liverpool: some Suarez brilliance as well as a killer throughball; a set play; and ruthlessly capitalizing on an opposition mistake. Two Manchester City strikes from patient build-up play with short passes, triangles, and one and two touches per player.

Both City goals came during the 10-15 minute period where Liverpool were flagging. Liverpool have allowed very few opposition goals that looked like City's two. More often, at least one Liverpool player is able to press, hassle, harry the opposition out of possession before they can pass pass pass pass pass through the midfield. But after an all-guns-blazing opening 45 minutes, the midfield had tired, and it was strange to see neither Allen nor Lucas come on. And those two goals were partly the result.

Milner, on in the 50th minute, made a massive difference – tucking instead where Navas stayed wide, drawing the fullbacks out of position, another attacker that actually linked with the others – but David Silva was the epicenter, far better able to find space amidst the tiring Liverpool midfield.

A similar amount of passes received in each half, but in much more threatening positions in the second half. Silva scored the first, set up the second, and could and probably should have added a game sealing third, inches away from connecting with Agüero's slightly-too-heavy centering pass.

It was worrying to see Liverpool tire so quickly in the second half. They still have four furious games left, games that will take a lot out of them no matter the opposition. It's no coincidence that City didn't score another Allen came on – not only providing a fresh set of legs but changing the formation to a more secure 4-1-4-1 – although City had two glorious chances to do so (both chances presented by Liverpool mistakes in their own half).

And Liverpool will be without its Energizer Bunny for three of those four matches. Henderson's late red card was Liverpool's first of the season. There have been just three Premier League seasons where Liverpool failed to pick up a single red card: 1995-96, 2006-07, and 2008-09. Only four teams are yet to have a player sent off this season: Aston Villa, Cardiff, Southampton, and West Brom.

13 April 2014

Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Sterling 6'
Skrtel 26'
Silva 57'
Johnson OG 62'
Coutinho 78'

Football. Sometimes it's impossible to describe.

Today saw every possible emotion. Anxiety to hopefulness to ecstasy to fear to resignation to utter jubilation to relief. There was not a single lull through 90 minutes, not one chance for anyone to catch their breath. At full time, it felt like we'd all run a marathon.

As in the home matches against Arsenal, Everton, and Tottenham, Liverpool began in the best possible manner, attacking towards the Kop, backed by four walls of ground-shaking noise.

The starting lineup was a bit of a surprise. Both Sterling and Coutinho were in the XI, but Liverpool persisted with the diamond, with Sterling at the apex and Coutinho deeper than usual. Two months ago, I never thought that possible, none of us thought that possible. And Sterling – still, I remind, just 19 years old – opened the scoring in the 6th minute.

Liverpool were all over City, and it seemed a matter of time before the second. That Yaya Toure had to go off through injury in the 19th minute – the player they'd least like to lose – made it seem even more imminent. Sterling's early cross found Sturridge in a perfect position, but the striker flicked his shot narrowly wide. Gerrard, letting Coutinho take a corner, bashed his free header too close to a quick-to-react Hart. But the reward finally came on the subsequent corner. This time, Gerrard took. This time, Skrtel ghosted in front of three players (zonal marking!) for a near post flick-on, giving Hart no chance. That's seven for him this season. I checked the records a few weeks back. I may be wrong, but I couldn't find a Liverpool center-back who has scored more in a single season.

But Manchester City aren't Swansea or Fulham. They aren't Arsenal or Everton. They were bound to regroup. It began in the final 10-15 minutes of the first half – Gerrard made a crucial block on Dzeko; Sakho,could have been called for a penalty on Dzeko; Sterling and Johnson both cleared a corner off the line; Mignolet had to make a marvelous save on Fernandinho; Liverpool got away with three frightening, casual passes in their own half – but in the second half, Manchester City made a comeback that looked worthy of champions.

You knew there'd be a response, and you had to be prepared for it. Liverpool seemingly weren't. To be fair, it helps when you can sub on £55m or so worth of players in Milner and Agüero. Milner made the bigger impact, by far, with Agüero clearly not fully fit, coming on after City got their two goals. The England midfielder – on in place of Navas, who'd been utterly smothered by Flanagan – was involved in both of City's goals, and it's not as if Liverpool weren't warned. Neat one-twos around Liverpool's defenders, wide players getting to the byline, cutting back for well-placed attackers.

Liverpool got that warning a minute before City's first when Silva had the ball in the net, called back because Milner couldn't keep it in before playing the pass, and City's opener came from the exact same situation – this time, Silva slamming in Milner's cutback. And five minutes later, they were level; City given too much space down Liverpool's right, one touch from Milner to Nasri to Silva, Silva's ball at the byline deflecting off both Johnson and Mignolet, the own goal given to the right back. As in the first half, fortune favors the bold.

"You didn't think it'd be that easy, did you?"

Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.

Just as important was how Liverpool's diamond midfield had tired after the frenetic first hour, with the game crying out for Allen or Lucas in place of Coutinho or Sterling, no matter how well those two had played in the first half. But rather than replacing one of the midfielders, an injury to Sturridge required his exit, with Allen coming on and Liverpool switching to 4-1-4-1/4-3-3.

It was a good thing that Coutinho didn't come off. Liverpool still had to weather a bit of an onslaught: Mignolet saving Dzeko's effort, Nasri blasting wide from distance, and the closest they came, Silva toe-poking Agüero's centered pass wide after Skrtel's mistake in defense left Sakho up against both Agüero and Silva. But Liverpool began to find its bearings. The old Liverpool would have lost faith, at best drawing 2-2 but more likely losing 2-3. Not this Liverpool. Not the Liverpool unbeaten since the new year, not the Liverpool that'd won nine straight. Not the Liverpool that believes.

But it's still better to be lucky and good rather than lucky or good. Liverpool, achieving its toe-hold, keeping possession in City's half, won a throw-in near the corner flag. Clichy could only head skyward, Kompany completely fouled up his attempted clearance, and Coutinho was onto the loose ball as if he were shot from a cannon, barely looking up before rifling past Joe Hart.

From there, you expected a City onslaught. And City dominated possession, but despite 15 minutes to play, despite five minutes of added time, the closest they came was a downward header from Demichelis from a corner, easily claimed by Mignolet. Flanagan's brutal tackle not long after Coutinho's strike, cleanly clearing out both ball and man before roaring in the direction of his teammates then the crowd, set the tone. "We will not be moved."

That Henderson picked up a deserved straight red in the dying minutes ended the day on a downer, or as much of a downer as possible after that result. He'll miss the next three matches, the only time he's missed this season, but at least Liverpool have replacements in both Lucas and Allen.

Today was the second-straight match where Liverpool have won without either Suarez or Sturridge scoring. Those are the only two matches where that's happened this season.

Over the last four months, Liverpool have become an amazing team. Emphasis on the final word. From reliance on Suarez and Sturridge, to beating the presumptive league favorites led by the performances of Gerrard, Sterling, Coutinho, and Flanagan. Neither of Liverpool's talismanic strikers were anywhere near their best. Suarez was the epicenter of Liverpool's first, bullying two defenders before an nanometer-perfect throughball for Sterling, but was too often petulant and frustrated after picking up an early yellow. Sturridge was a shadow of his usual self, made worse by picking up an injury in the build-up to City's second goal.

But Liverpool coped, and Liverpool responded. You can't look past the aforementioned efforts of Sterling, Coutinho, and Flanagan, but Gerrard was the man of the match. Liverpool has become Gerrard, the destroyer of worlds. To crib a terrible Chelsea banner, one that Gerrard's far more deserving of, he's Captain, Leader, Legend. And it means the world to him.

Nothing is settled, nothing is finalized. But it's another step on the road, this road we never thought Liverpool could travel this season. There are four games left for greatness, and I've no doubt Liverpool will treat each as importantly as they did today.

12 April 2014

Liverpool v Manchester City 04.13.14

8:37am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 City (a) 12.26.13
2-2 (a) 02.03.13
2-2 (h) 08.26.12
2-2 (h; League Cup) 01.25.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 West Ham (a); 4-0 Tottenham (h); 2-1 Sunderland (h)
Manchester City: 4-1 Southampton (h); 1-1 Arsenal (a); 3-0 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 29; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 13; Skrtel, Sterling 6; Coutinho, Henderson 4; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
Manchester City: Y Toure 18; Agüero 15; Dzeko 11; Negredo 9; Silva 6; Nasri 5; Fernandinho, Navas 4; Kompany 3; Jovetic 2; Demichelis, Kolarov, Milner 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Flanagan
Lucas Henderson
Sturridge Suarez

There seem to be more questions about Liverpool's starting XI and formation than usual this week.

First, there's the most frequent: diamond or 4-3-3? Liverpool have started with the 4-3-3 in the last two matches, but switched to the diamond in the second half. And controlled the game better in the diamond formation, although Liverpool could have controlled the second half against Tottenham in any formation. I suspect Rodgers will deploy it from the start tomorrow. Manchester City can cause pain on the flanks, but aside from Navas, it's mostly through the fullbacks. It's more important that Liverpool "win the midfield", especially against the likes of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho.

A diamond formation raises two personnel questions. Sterling or Coutinho, Allen or Lucas? Who plays at the apex and who plays on the side opposite Henderson?

Sterling seemingly has more value as a substitute, able to stretch the game when legs are tiring, and is more versatile, increasingly comfortable in the middle in addition to his performances on either flank. Coutinho, a more orthodox midfielder, better able to link play between midfield and attack and more capable of playing the defense-killing throughball, seems a more appropriate starter.

It was surprising to see Lucas come on at halftime for Coutinho a week ago, and even more surprising to see where he played: Liverpool shifting to the diamond, and Lucas playing ahead of Gerrard. And Lucas' introduction made Liverpool much more defensively secure, both through the middle and when Lucas chipped in to support the fullback. Most amazingly, he also got forward, playing the crucial pass to win the crucial penalty. Allen is no slouch defensively – he was outstanding against United in this formation – but the more combative, physical Lucas seems a better pick against Toure and Fernandinho.

Finally, regardless of formation, Agger or Sakho? The former's fit again after missing last week through injury, but the latter did quite well in Agger's absence, especially considering how much time he'd missed prior to starting against West Ham. City don't pose the aerial threat that West Ham did, but they're more than capable in the air, especially if Dzeko starts. Rodgers often sticks with the devil he knows, preferring consistency, especially in defense, which would suggest another start for Sakho, but I honestly have no idea who he'll choose.

Worth noting: Liverpool have kept ten clean sheets in the league this season. Agger has started in all but two. Yes, he's also played when Liverpool have conceded three against Everton, Swansea, and Cardiff, but the previous stat hardly seems coincidence. More than half of Agger's league starts (15) have ended with Liverpool's opponent scoreless.

Agüero is fit again after a month on the sidelines, injured in the first leg at Barcelona four weeks ago. City have coped with his absence surprisingly well, winning four and drawing one of the five league matches, but there seems little doubt he'll come straight back into the starting XI, by far a better option than Dzeko or Negredo.

City's likely XI is Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy; Toure, Fernandinho; Navas, Silva, Nasri; Agüero. Dzeko may well start; there have been matches where he's played in the hole, behind Agüero in a sort of 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid, flanked by two from Nasri, Navas, and Silva. Knowing that a draw will still put City in control of its destiny, Pellegrini could also use the more defensive Milner instead of Navas or Nasri, as he did at Barcelona, but Milner's only started two league matches since January 1.

11 of the 40 league goals that Liverpool have conceded this season have come from headers; seven of those 11 have come on set plays. Facing Agüero rather than Dzeko might better suit Liverpool, especially an Agüero in his first game back after a month's absence. But let's not downplay how good Sergio Agüero is. Three players have more goals than Agüero this season – Suarez, Sturridge, and Yaya Toure – but Agüero's done it in far fewer appearances, with a goals per 90 average of 1.13, compared to Suarez's 1.04 and Sturridge's 0.90. This piece, from Ben Pugsley six weeks ago, aptly demonstrates how important Agüero is to this City side.

Let's face it. Manchester City are loaded, from top to bottom. They can beat you in any number of ways. That's what spending ungodly amounts of oil money can and should buy you. But they also often appear a collection of incredibly talented individuals rather than a team.

I hate falling into the "THIS IS LIVERPOOL'S MOST IMPORTANT GAME SINCE BLAH BLAH BLAH" trap. Liverpool could win on Sunday but still fail to win the title if they mess up in one or more of the next four matches. Liverpool could lose or draw tomorrow but still win the the title if City (or Chelsea) mess up in one or more of their final matches. Tomorrow could decide a lot, but won't decide everything.

That said, this is Liverpool's most important league match in a very, very long time. A draw or loss means that City's back in the catbird seat. It's fitting that Liverpool will need to beat both their closest competitors in the last five weeks to win the championship. There will be no backing into this title. And both of those matches will be at Anfield. A very, very loud Anfield.

Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them.

07 April 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Tottenham (h), Sunderland (h), Cardiff (a), Manchester United (a), Southampton (a), Swansea (h), Fulham (a), Arsenal (h), West Brom (a), Everton (h), 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 now won 12 penalties this campaign, converting ten of them. This is the most that Liverpool have won in a Premier League season; the previous high was 10 in 2003-04 and 1992-93. Historically, it's usually somewhere between four and seven league penalties a season. Manchester City and Chelsea are tied for second-most penalties this season; they've each earned seven.

The last side to win 12 penalties in a season? Chelsea in 2009-10. Who set the record for goals scored in a Premier League season. And won the league.

Luis Suarez has earned five of those 12 penalties (as well as Liverpool's one penalty in the FA Cup): two via handball, two via mistimed tackles by the defender, and one when taken out by a goalkeeper. Sterling's earned three, Sturridge two, Allen and Flanagan one each.

It shouldn't be surprising that Liverpool have won so many spot kicks when they've the capacity to score at will, and with fast, clever players such as Suarez, Sterling, and Sturridge. But 12 is still a surprisingly large amount of penalties. And we can easily come up with more than should have been given: at City, at Chelsea, at United just to name three.

It took chutzpah to take off Philippe Coutinho at halftime. He'd created three chances of Liverpool's five first half chances, looked the player most likely to find the pass that finally broke West Ham's defense. It was not the obvious change if Rodgers was looking to make changes. No matter. Liverpool's midfield wasn't working, Liverpool weren't in control, West Ham were threatening too often, and Rodgers wasn't having it. So on came Lucas.

From there, Liverpool played and completed more passes, had much more possession, took more shots, created more and better chances. In addition, Andy Carroll was rendered mostly moot and mute.

Obviously, Lucas wasn't solely responsible for Liverpool's improvement or Carroll's nullification. But the switch to a diamond midfield with a stronger defender as one of the wider midfielders did negate West Ham's primary attacking strategy to a large extent. And, to the shock of pretty much all involved, it was Lucas' throughball which earned the winning penalty. Rodgers has increasingly been praised for his willingness to tinker, often in the starting formation and personnel. Now we're seeing those adjustments during the match as well.

Once again, Liverpool did an excellent job limiting the opposition to shots from less dangerous positions, with only four of 11 shots coming inside the box. One of those four – the goal – obviously shouldn't have stood. Another, from Nolan, was as much an attempted flick-on as a shot, and didn't go anywhere near Mignolet. Credit for that is team-wide, defending well in both midfield and defense, but special mention goes to Skrtel and Sakho, combining for 21 clearances and winning eight of 17 aerial duels against a difficult opponent. Skrtel's renaissance has been remarkable, but Sakho's efforts were even more impressive given that he hadn't started a match since December 29.

However, three of those four shots came from set piece situations, the fourth – Carroll's header off the bar – from Diame's right-flank cross. It's worth reiterating a stat from yesterday's match review: Demel's goal was the 12th set play goal Liverpool have conceded this season (not counting penalties, which would bring the total up to 15). Only Fulham, Stoke, Sunderland, and West Brom have conceded more. Granted, it's vastly improved in recent weeks – Liverpool conceded nine in the first half of the season, but just three since the New Year – but it's still enough to worry at times.

Liverpool have also scored the most set play goals in the league this season. Second-most? Next week's opponent: Manchester City.

06 April 2014

Liverpool 2-1 West Ham

Gerrard 44' (pen) 71' (pen)
Demel 45+1'

Sometimes, the universe tries to trick me into believing that karma actually exists.

West Ham were able to impose their style on the game, to drag Liverpool down to its subterranean level. But, aside from one moment of madness from Anthony Taylor, Liverpool wrestled in the mud just as well as West Ham.

Do you want to know why Allardyce and Pulis' teams often play rugby rather than football? Because it achieves their limited aims, and, more importantly, because referees let them get away with it. 60% of the time, it works every time, and that's enough to avoid relegation and give the bigger clubs a game every now and them, so that's good enough.

Anthony Taylor's decisions led to all three of today's goals. Yes, I'm biased. But the first was a 100% clear and correct decision. The second was a 100% clear and incorrect decision. And the third was arguable, debatable, and most likely very much a make-up call.

For 43 minutes, pure frustration. West Ham controlled the tenor and tempo, even if it was mostly harmless thanks to Liverpool's strong defending. Sakho, starting for the first time since December 29 because of an injury to Agger, battled manfully, but Skrtel was again Liverpool's rock at the back, matching Carroll step for step and header for header. Liverpool had opportunities to counter, allowing West Ham to come forward in the hopes of ripping them apart through transitions, but either the final pass or shot went astray.

Then, Steven Gerrard happened. There are still valid complaints about his positional discipline and awareness when deployed as the deepest midfielder – although they're increasingly few and far between – but it's freed him to make passes like today's: an inch-perfect, defense-destroying 60-yard pass to Suarez, peeling behind Demel and Tomkins, forcing a handball from the central defender in a similar position to Rafael's at Old Trafford. Gerrard trotted forward to the spot, and sent Adrian hopelessly in the wrong direction.

Rodgers' mantra after taking a first half lead is to not do anything stupid in the dying minutes before halftime. Be clever, see out the remainder. And despite conceding an unnecessary corner in injury time, they'd looked to have done so. Until Anthony Taylor intervened. Mignolet appeared to claim, until Carroll punched him in the head. Taylor either ignored or didn't see it, signaling goal while his linesman's flagging furiously for the foul. So he stops, goes to talk to the better positioned linesman ... and still gives the goal. Amazing. You'll never, ever convince me that's given had Taylor not awarded Liverpool a penalty two minutes earlier. Referees always want to "even" things up.

So yes, it was by hook and by crook, but it was still the 15th set play goal Liverpool have conceded this season. Only Fulham, Stoke, Sunderland, and West Brom have allowed more. That's not good.

Rodgers clearly wasn't happy at halftime, and wouldn't have been pleased even if the game was still 0-0 or 1-0. He changed both shape and style, bringing on Lucas and reverting to the 4-4-2 diamond, the defensive-minded Brazilian in place of the attack-minded Brazilian, which better solidified the center of the park, and clustered more players around Carroll and West Ham's other attackers who were looking for the big lump's knock-downs. From 55.6% Liverpool possession in the first half to 72.4% possession in the second half. And, surprisingly enough, the substitution was crucial to the game-winning penalty. Had you told me that Liverpool would win because a Lucas throughball to Flanagan would earn Liverpool a penalty, I would have had you institutionalized. Gerrard, back at the spot, this time going to his left. As did Adrian, but the keeper still had zero chance of keeping the ferocious blast out. A hammer blow, if you will.

From there, Liverpool did an admirable job of seeing out the match, even after Allardyce brought on a second lumbering colossus striker in Carlton Cole, with Rodgers replying with Toure for the misfiring Sturridge. It was nerve-wracking, because Liverpool are often nerve-wracking, but the only chance I can remember in the final 20 minutes fell to Downing at the top of the box. Every Liverpool fan breathed a sigh of relief, remembering Downing's time at Liverpool, as the winger ballooned his shot well over.

With better finishing, it wouldn't have been this nerve-wrecking. The counter-attack just didn't click at times, but both Suarez and Sturridge missed opportunities they've had seized with both hands earlier in the season. Suarez twice hit the crossbar with efforts conjured from nothing, Sturridge put three of five shots off-target, with his two on-target efforts both tamely hit at Adrian.

Liverpool needed two penalties to do it – taking the season total up to 10 (not counting the spot kick in the FA Cup at Arsenal, or misses against Everton and United) – but Liverpool are now only the fourth team to score 90 goals in the Premier League era, joining 1999-00 Manchester United, 2009-10 Chelsea, and 2011-12 Manchester City. And yes, all three of those sides won the league.

Once again, we're complimenting Liverpool for showing the resilience needed in a title chase. Gerrard, cool as you like from the spot, setting up the opening goal, foraging for knockdowns when Carroll won headers, and tracking West Ham's runners well, is a microcosm of that composure, deservedly the center of our attentions. It's telling that he remained the deepest midfielder despite Lucas' introduction. Liverpool's center-backs weren't far behind in the man-of-the-match race, especially Skrtel, while Liverpool's fullbacks defended well enough, even if both were beaten by Diame and Downing on a couple of occasions (especially Flanagan by Diame).

Another mark in the correct column, for the ninth (!!!) consecutive match. Just five more to go.

05 April 2014

Liverpool at West Ham 04.06.14

11am ET, live in the US on CNBC

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.07.13
0-0 (h) 04.07.13
3-2 Liverpool (a) 12.09.12
1-3 West Ham (a) 02.27.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Tottenham (h); 2-1 Sunderland (h); 6-3 Cardiff (a)
West Ham: 2-1 Sunderland (a); 2-1 Hull (h); 0-2 United (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 29; Sturridge 20; Gerrard 11; Sterling 7; Skrtel 6; Coutinho, Henderson 4; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
West Ham: Nolan 7; C Cole 6; Diame 4; J Cole, Morrison, Noble 3, Carroll, Vaz Te 2; Collins, Jarvis, Maïga, Reid 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Flanagan
Henderson Coutinho
Sterling Sturridge Suarez

You don't want to concede the flanks to West Ham. When using the diamond, Liverpool has defended in wide positions well at times (at United), and less well at others (periods of the matches against Southampton, Sunderland, and Cardiff).

Only Moyes' Manchester United average more crosses per match than West Ham this season, while Stewart Downing (remember him?) has played more crosses than any other player in the league. Only Crystal Palace averages less possession per match, only Crystal Palace has a lower average pass accuracy (*waves to Tony Pulis*). Like Pulis, Fat Sam thrives on maximizing his slim odds, and he's decided the best way to do that is to concede possession, pack the defense, transition quickly through long balls to the striker, win the knockdown, and then push the ball to the flanks in order to pump crosses into the box. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Which is why I suspect Liverpool will persist with the same formation, and most likely the same XI, that we saw last weekend. There's a chance that Sakho replaces Agger, as the Frenchman's slightly stronger in the air, or that Lucas replaces Gerrard, in order to protect that captain from a yellow card that'd see him suspended for the City match, but I doubt that Rodgers will make either change. If Liverpool do revert to the diamond, it seems likely that Sterling replaces Coutinho at the apex of it, another speedy player to try to pull West Ham's defenders out of position, rather than the Brazilian attempting to pass through them.

Tomorrow will also be a massive challenge for Martin Skrtel, who's somehow turned into Liverpool's most consistent defender this season.

West Ham often either keep a clean sheet or concede in bunches. They've held the opposition scoreless in 13 matches, which is three more than Liverpool; Chelsea are the only side that's kept more clean sheets (14 to West Ham's 13). But they've also let in three or more goals in ten matches, including in the reverse fixture: six times at home and four times on their travels. They drawn just one match since the New Year, winning six and losing three in the last nine games.

They're also the oldest side in the league, with three or four probable starters over 30. With James Collins most likely out through injury (Boriello, O'Brien, and McCartney are also doubtful), that probable XI is Adrian; Demel, Tomkins, Reid, Armero; Noble, Taylor; Downing, Nolan, Diame; Carroll.

Downing and Diame can line up on either flank, splitting time almost equally this season. The ex-Liverpool player started on the left against United, but on the right against Hull and Sunderland. According to WhoScored, Downing has started on the left in 11 matches this season, on the right in 10. Whether Liverpool play 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 diamond, it'll be imperative that Flanagan plays well, most likely one-on-one against Downing for long stretches. He'll be more likely to cross, given West Ham's style of play, but remains capable of cutting inside on his stronger foot when starting on the right. Of course, I'll always focus on ex-Liverpool players' capacity to punish their former club. Because I can't help focusing on the worst possible outcome, even if this season's tried to disabuse me of that notion.

Liverpool cannot look ahead to Manchester City; this match will present its own difficulties. But, thankfully, Liverpool's focus hasn't been a problem for quite some time now. They may have started slowly in some matches (at Cardiff), they may not have hit full stride in some matches (against Sunderland), but they haven't taken any opponents for granted.

With just six games to play, and every point crucial, it'd be a bad habit to pick up tomorrow.