30 September 2014

Liverpool at Basel 10.01.14

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Everton (h); 2-2 Boro [14-13 pens] (h); 1-3 West Ham (a)
Basel: 1-1 Thun (h); 3-1 Vaduz (h); 4-0 Winterthur (a)

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Basel: 1-5 Real Madrid (a)

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard 1
Basel: Gonzalez 1

Referee: Jonas Eriksson (SWE)

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Gerrard Henderson
Lallana Coutinho Sterling

Once again, it's still too soon for Daniel Sturridge, who didn't travel with the team to Switzerland. And neither did Mamadou Sakho, currently being punished for walking out on the club after being left out of the squad over the weekend.

Which means that tomorrow's XI is going to look an awful lot like the one we saw on Saturday. I suspect we'll see Coutinho or Borini in place of Markovic, who was suspended for the last match against Ludogorets, as the young winger's disappointed in his last two appearances. He'd probably benefit from being used as a substitute, where his speed can have more effect, especially if Liverpool are ahead in the match.

Liverpool could play a diamond, with Gerrard at the base; two from Henderson, Lucas, and Coutinho as the shuttlers; Lallana, Sterling, or Coutinho at the apex; and Balotelli and Borini or Lambert up front. Which doesn't seem ideal – even though Liverpool need help up front, the diamond doesn't ever seem ideal without Allen or Can opposite Henderson – it could work against Basel's likely 3-4-2-1 formation, giving Liverpool added strength in the middle of the pitch and an extra body up front so Balotelli isn't isolated against all those center-backs.

But for the most part, the XI writes itself. Unlike in the League Cup, we won't see many, if any, usual starters rested. Even if some players (*cough* Gerrard *cough*) clearly benefited from the lack of a midweek fixture. This match will go a long way in deciding the group – Liverpool and Basel are seemingly playing for second place – and it's not as if Liverpool are spoilt for choice, mainly thanks to lingering injuries.

As with Ludogorets, I won't pretend to know much about Basel's set-up or tactics. I know that they walk the Swiss Super League almost every season – league winners in the last five seasons, two points clear at the top after 10 games this season – and that they usually sell one or two key players every season, and then rebuild. See: Shaqiri, Xhaka, Salah, etc.

They're now managed by Paulo Sousa, who you may remember from QPR, Swansea, or Leicester. Sousa was Swansea's manager prior to Brendan Rodgers, leaving for a bigger salary at Leicester, where he lasted all of 86 days, while Rodgers got Swansea promoted to the Premier League in his first season.

Basel's usual system so far this season is 3-4-2-1, and the XI which lost 1-5 to Real Madrid was Vaclik; Schär, Samuel, Suchy; T Xhaka, El Nenny, Frei, Safari; Gonzalez, Zuffi; Streller. Fabian Schär is seemingly the next player to depart for a bigger club/league/paycheck, while Samuel and Streller are cagey veterans, and Fabian Frei is Basel's cornerstone central midfielder. Serey Die is another option as a defensive midfielder, Matias Delgado as an attacking midfielder. The legendary Philipp Degen still plays for Basel, but will surprisingly miss out due to injury, as will center-back Ivan Ivanov, the reigning Bulgarian Footballer of the Year.

Basel have been difficult European opponents in the last few seasons, making the round of 16 in the Champions League in 2011-12, reaching the Europa League semifinals in 2012-13 (where they lost to Chelsea), and beating Chelsea twice in the Champions League group stage last season, ultimately ending up in the Europa League where they made the last eight.

Unlike Liverpool, they have experience in European competition, no matter the turnover Basel's squad goes through every season. Liverpool certainly can't take them lightly, but Liverpool's form of late has meant they can't take anyone lightly.

No matter the result, Liverpool were a better side on Saturday, delivering one of the stronger performances of the season despite the continuing struggles in front of goal. Not that that's saying much. Sousa's preferred tactics and the fact that Liverpool are away from home should mean that the team has more space to operate, to counter-attack, compared to almost every other fixture so far this season. It's always dangerous to have hope, but if Liverpool can build on Saturday's performance, tomorrow's match could well be a much-needed turning point.

29 September 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

So close, yet still so far.

Compare it to Villa or West Ham, or Ludogorets or Boro, and Liverpool were vastly better. In all areas.

In contrast to Villa and West Ham, Liverpool started exceptionally well, only denied a goal in the first 11 minutes by both Tim Howard and Martin Atkinson. Liverpool created more chances, better chances, and took more shots. The link-up play in attack was much improved, with Henderson, Coutinho, Lallana, and Sterling involved in almost all of Liverpool's most prolific passing combinations. Liverpool allowed Everton just two Danger Zone chances: the threatening header that Lukaku barely made contact with in the 66th minute and Barry's near post flick from a free kick after Everton had already equalized. Otherwise, the away side took just one more shot inside the box, which was blocked, and eight speculative shots from outside the box. Liverpool avoided the individual errors that either cost or nearly cost points in all the aforementioned fixtures.

And yet Liverpool still dropped two points because football is not fair and life is not fair.

Mario Balotelli took 10 of Liverpool's 24 shots. Which is both a good and bad thing. But mostly bad, as eight of the 10 were off-target, and eight of the 10 came from outside the box. He took five of the six shots in "Out Box Left" on the above chart, Sterling's blocked effort which should have been a handball and penalty the only exception. Liverpool took 39 shots in that zone through all of last season, resulting in four goals (three from Suarez, one from Sturridge).

A couple of those shots actually came on the end of good build-up play. Which, coincidentally, were his two Danger Zone shots: sustained possession ending with a blocked effort from Sterling's centered pass, and the counter-attack and cross where he hit the bar in the 67th. Two were from direct free kicks – one into the wall, one saved by Howard – in the first 10 minutes before Gerrard rightfully pulled rank. The other six… eh, not so much.

• In the 25th minute, from outside the box, with two teammates in the box and three just outside, hitting an offside Moreno with his wild effort.

• In the 38th minute, a wormburning roller from 25 yards out not even close to goal with six (!!!) teammates ahead of him.

• In the 40th minute, a shot from nearly 35 yards, deflected out for a corner.

• In the 43rd minute, another attempted curler from outside the box on the left, straight at Tim Howard and easily caught, with five players ahead of him and three in the box.

• In the 59th minute, scrambling to pick up a loose ball, his shot from 25 yards hitting Henderson, who was attempting to recycle possession. And yes, there were four Liverpool players ahead of him, along with Moreno level and wide open on the left flank.

• In the 80th minute, wonderfully controlling Mignolet's goal kick before volleying narrowly wide, the best of his efforts from distance. This was Liverpool's last shot of the match.

That's the perfect cross-sports comparison. He is an excellent player who will win you games, but you're probably not winning anything of note if he's your main or only attacking option.

There is some value in long-range shots and shot monsters with no conscience, and we knew this was the case with Balotelli long before Saturday's match. I recommend scrolling through this long conversion on Twitter yesterday, where this article from Colin Trainor was also mentioned. Liverpool would be struggling for shots in general without Balotelli's efforts, and speculative long range chances still have a chance of going is, as Phil Jagielka cruelly demonstrated.

Nonetheless, let me reiterate. Balotelli took 10 shots, and did not create a single chance. He took 10 shots, the same number of passes he completed. That's less than ideal.

Luis Suarez took 10 shots in just two matches after Rodgers became manager: against Fulham last season, where he scored twice, and against Reading in 2012-13, a match where his accuracy was even worse than Balotelli's on Saturday but Liverpool still narrowly won 1-0 because Reading didn't have Phil Jagielka. Both Gerrard and Coutinho have attempted nine in a match during that time frame (the latter in the same Fulham match where Suarez attempted 10, the former in that match against Chelsea last season that we won't discuss any further); Sturridge's high so far is eight, in the 5-0 win against Swansea in 2012-13. In every single match mentioned above, the individual player took a lower percentage of Liverpool's total shots than Balotelli did on Saturday.

Regardless, finally, Liverpool got its goal, from a set play. The first set play goal of the season. The first direct free kick scored since Gerrard's at Sunderland on March 26, 14 league matches ago. Liverpool won eight games thanks to set play goals last season: 1-0 United (h), 1-0 Fulham (h), 2-0 Norwich (h), 2-0 West Ham (h), 1-0 Hull (h), 1-0 Everton (h), 2-0 Arsenal (h), and 2-1 Newcastle (h). And the goal came from a free kick that Balotelli won.

And then – unsurprisingly, considering the goals that Liverpool conceded late against both Ludogorets and Middlesbrough – Liverpool reverted into a defensive shell, a tactic which brought them victory in the first three matches to start last season, but rarely since then.

In a just universe, Liverpool's defensive shelling would have worked.

The one chance that Everton created inside the box in the final 20 minutes was from a free kick conceded by Moreno after Everton had equalized. Before that, for more than 20 minutes, all Everton could create despite near total possession was three shots outside the box: McCarthy, Eto'o, and McGeady, all well off-target. Liverpool's packed defense shoved Everton out wide in the attacking, denying passes into the box and centrally in front of the box.

But then that goal happened. Everton allowed to build inside its own half, under some pressure from Lallana but with everyone else dropping back, a long ball to the right back near the corner flag, an overhit cross picked up by McGeady, McGeady's cross headed out of the box, but WHAM, Jagielka from nearly 30 yards out. Maybe Lovren could and should have directed his header elsewhere rather than out centrally where it could be picked up, maybe Moreno should have blocked Browning's initial cross, but otherwise Liverpool did little wrong on that sequence. And they were punished all the same.

If Liverpool play like this in every match, it sure seems as if they'll win far more than they lose or draw, especially once Sturridge and Allen return to the XI. But the frightening thing is that we used similar "ifs" to justify results from 2009-10 through 2012-13, and I suspect you remember how that went.

27 September 2014

Liverpool 1-1 Everton

Gerrard 65'
Jagielka 90+2'

If you don't laugh, you're gonna cry and maybe explode and maybe go on a murderous rampage, so I recommend laughing.

It's the third game this season – and there have only been eight matches so far this season – where Liverpool have conceded in injury time. One in each competition that Liverpool's currently involved in. All three of them at Anfield.

The Ludogorets breakaway after Liverpool stupidly lost possession in the attacking third when defending a 1-0 lead. A Middlesbrough penalty in extra time when Sterling back-passed to a Boro attacker when defending a 2-1 lead and Toure unnecessarily scythed down the attacker. And now, the most unbelievable. The best shot of Phil Jagielka's life after Lovren headed away an Everton cross, with Liverpool looking secure despite 15 minutes of defensive shelling. Liverpool were actually doing what they should in that situation, and even doing it marginally well, and that happens. Sports are the worst.

And, of course, that it happens against Everton, at Anfield, makes it approximately 10000% worse. Wonderful.

Otherwise, same old Liverpool but with what looked to be the return of the set play saving grace. Well, not quite same old Liverpool, as both the defense and midfield were the best they've been since beating Tottenham, maybe all season. But same old Liverpool in attack without Daniel Sturridge.

It's probably a very different match if Barry concedes a penalty (and gets a second yellow) for handball in the 9th minute, or a deserved second yellow for a foul less than a minute later. But Martin Atkinson Doesn't Want To Ruin The Game™, in the vein of great English referees such as Howard Webb, and wrongly ignores both. Liverpool will be right to complain about those moments.

Nonetheless, Liverpool were dominant in that first half and still better than Everton in the second – something we haven't been able to say often this season – and really should have been able to take advantage, regardless of the referee.

Lallana and Henderson's work rate made a massive difference to the midfield, and Liverpool's defense looked much more secure, despite the same personnel, until that preposterous equalizer, although they were aided by Martinez's conservative tactics, clearly remembering what happened the last time Everton came to Anfield.

It's still the attack that's problematic, with Mario Balotelli the most problematic. Aside from an excellent start, Liverpool rarely looked like scoring despite taking 24 shots. 10 of those came from Balotelli: two on target, three off-target, and five blocked. Eight of 10 from outside the box. It's exactly as advertised – he shoots from everywhere with no conscience – and made worse because Liverpool didn't have many other options. But it's not working at the moment, and Liverpool desperately misses Daniel Sturridge, who'll help ease some of Balotelli's burden.

Last season, when the attack struggled, set plays saved the day. And that looked to be the case today, when Gerrard fired past Howard from 25 yards after Balotelli was fouled, for Liverpool's first set play goal of the season. Finally.

The struggles in attack meant that Liverpool were always going to defensively shell after going ahead, only looking for a second when Everton gave them opportunities on the break. And the only time Everton truly threatened before injury time was immediately after the goal, a deep cross from Besic narrowly missing Lukaku's head. And Liverpool almost replied straight away: a counter-attack ending with Sterling's cross finding Balotelli six yards from goal but only able to hit the crossbar, possibly aided by the slightest of touches from Howard.

Liverpool had few opportunities on the break, but stifled Everton, long shots from Eto'o and McGeady that weren't even close Everton's only chances. Liverpool isolated attackers, Liverpool cleared free kicks, corners, and crosses. Until injury time, until only half clearing a cross, until that moment from Jagielka that he'll never be able to replicate.

To be fair, if Liverpool continue to play like that, they'll score more than a lone goal in most games and win most of those games. Balotelli's shooting was awful but he still worked hard, tracked back and held the ball up well. Lallana was outstanding, although – like Sterling – clearly started to tire and became less influential after his midweek exertions. Henderson did Henderson things in midfield, both linking with attack and protecting Gerrard. Lovren and Skrtel finally looked a decent partnership. Sturridge will eventually return, Liverpool's all-new attackers will become more accustomed to one another.

Yes, it's not even October yet, but the season is quickly getting away from Liverpool. Seven points from six games is a horrific return, reminiscent of the early failures which ended up defining both 2009-10 and 2012-13. They're currently 11th, and will probably be nine points off the league leaders in a little more than an hour. Already. Liverpool did mostly right and good things and only dropped two points because of a freak occurrence, even if unfairly, even if harshly, but that's made much worse because of what's come before.

This was always possible when trying to adapt to a different system with a lot of new players, especially in attack, and without Liverpool's most important attacker because of an international break injury. It's now become reality. Things should and probably will get better, but that has to happen before the mountain's too high to climb.

26 September 2014

Liverpool v Everton 09.27.14

7:45am ET, live in the US on NBCSN

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 01.28.14
3-3 (a) 11.23.13
0-0 (h) 05.05.13
2-2 (a) 10.28.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Boro [14-13 pens] (h); 1-3 West Ham (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Everton: 0-3 Swansea (a); 2-3 Palace (h); 4-1 Wolfsburg (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 3; Gerrard, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Everton: Naismith 3; Mirallas, Lukaku 2; Baines, Coleman, Eto'o, McGeady 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Gerrard Henderson
Borini Lallana Sterling

I dislike derbies at the best of times – even remembering how the last one ended – but this match definitely comes a week or so too soon.

Both Henderson and Coutinho are questionable, while Sturridge seems slightly more doubtful. And, of course, Allen, Can, Johnson, and Flanagan are all still absent as well.

I shudder to think what Liverpool's midfield will look like if both Henderson and Coutinho miss out. It would probably have to be 4-2-3-1, with Lallana ahead of Lucas and Gerrard, and Sterling and Borini/Suso/Markovic flanking Balotelli. Yes, a 4-2-3-1 with Lucas and Gerrard, remembering that Lucas played 120 minutes on Tuesday, might actually be Liverpool's "best" option. I can't sigh hard enough.

If just Henderson's fit (and I guess I just always expect Honey Badger to be fit), it'll probably be a similar set-up as against Boro, but with Henderson instead of Lucas. 4-2-3-1, with Lallana left, Sterling central, Borini/Suso/Markovic right, and Balotelli up front.

Maybe Rodgers plays three at the back, as we saw in most of the match at West Ham, to mitigate the losses in midfield. Something like Lovren, Skrtel, Sakho; Manquillo, Henderson/Lucas, Gerrard, Moreno; Lallana, Balotelli, Sterling.

If everyone's fit, it's probably the diamond, with Sterling at the apex and Henderson and Coutinho as shuttlers. That'd be ideal. I very much doubt everyone's fit. Liverpool's staff will know far better than I do, but given Sturridge's injury record, you'd have to think he'd be used as a substitute if at all after missing the last three weeks.

Everton aren't in the best shape either, in regards to form or fitness. One win, two draws, and two losses in the league, the worst loss in the last league match, a 2-3 home defeat to Palace at home despite scoring in the 9th minute, for Palace's first league win of the season. Which was followed by a second-string Everton absolutely dismantled by Swansea on Tuesday. On the injury front, Seamus Coleman and Steven Pienaar will be game-time decisions, while Barkley and Kone are assuredly absent.

Their defense has been even more frail than Liverpool, having conceded 13 in the league through six games, by far the most in the league but made worse by letting in six while chasing the match against Chelsea. But Everton have at least been decent in front of goal, with 11 strikes to Liverpool's seven so far.

Martinez's most likely XI (if Coleman and Pienaar are absent) is Howard; Stones, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Barry, McCarthy; Mirallas, Naismith, McGeady; Lukaku. Osman, Besic, or Gibson could start instead of McGeady for more midfield solidity, Atsu could for more counter-attacking pace. But I also assume Coleman will be available, because I always assume the worst.

Maybe it's a good thing that form goes out the window in derbies, as the cliché goes. For both sides. It's obvious, but whoever best remedies the problems which have plagued so far – Everton in defense, Liverpool in all three sections of the pitch – will have the best chance of coming out on top.

Even with European football (albeit the Europa League), matches against Liverpool are often Everton's most meaningful fixtures of the season. But tomorrow's match is even more important to Liverpool. A win tomorrow, remembering how to score against a shaky defense, could reinvigorate Liverpool's season, especially with all those injuries soon to heal. But I'm terrified to think of the effect that a loss would have given what's come before it.

22 September 2014

Liverpool v Middlesbrough 09.23.14

2:45pm ET, not live on TV in the US. Delayed on BeIN Sport at 4pm ET.

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Boro (a) 02.28.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 8.23.08
3-2 Liverpool (h) 02.23.08
1-1 (a) 01.12.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 West Ham (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h); 0-1 Villa (h)
Middlesbrough: 4-0 Brentford (h); 1-0 Cardiff (a); 2-1 Huddersfield (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: n/a
Middlesbrough: 3-1 Preston (h); 3-0 Oldham (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sterling 3; Gerrard 2; Balotelli, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Middlesbrough: Leadbitter 7; Kike 5; Tomlin 2; Adomah, Ayala, Bamford, Williams 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Lucas Rossiter
Markovic Lambert Borini

I have but one request. Do not play Gerrard.

That's easier said that done with news that both Henderson and Coutinho have minor injuries and are unlikely to play tomorrow, in addition to the already missing Allen and Can. But it still has to happen, even if it means a midfield comprising of three from Lucas, Lallana, Rossiter, and Suso.

Otherwise, whatever. The packed fixture list means Liverpool have to work around absentees and rest others. The result is fairly low down the list of priorities, no matter the current dearth of confidence or the match taking place at Anfield.

It's a chance for Lambert, Lallana, and Markovic to become better acclimatized to the side. I wouldn't have minded seeing Balotelli in place of Lambert – he needs minutes with his new teammates too – but Rodgers has confirmed Lambert will start, and considering the players injured and who need resting, I doubt Liverpool will go with the diamond.

Lallana in midfield would mean that either Sterling or Borini has to start in the front three (Balotelli's seemingly less likely than either). It'll probably be Borini, and rightfully so considering Liverpool's priorities and Sterling's age, but Sterling has been Liverpool main and frequently only attacking threat.

It's a chance for the defense to maybe think about removing their heads from their rear ends for a change, which is why I've guessed no changes in that area. But Sakho and/or Toure could come in, Jones might well start because it's a cup game, Enrique might actually make an appearance to rest Liverpool's first-choice left-back.

In the last two seasons, Rodgers' line-ups were stronger than expected in the two matches in this competition. But that seems less likely this season. Liverpool are back in the Champions League, and Liverpool have a much more important match early Saturday to worry about. Resting players who need resting seems both alpha and omega.

But make no mistake. This won't be easy, regardless of who starts. Middlesbrough are a decent side, fifth in the Championship, winning five and losing three so far this season, full of confidence after dominating Brentford in their last outing.

Aitor Karanka, who used to be Mourinho's assistant manager at Real Madrid, usually plays 4-2-3-1, but signing both Jelle Vosson and Kike (yes, I know what it looks like, but it's pronounced KEY-que) this summer gives him options. Vossen has started the last two matches up front: as a lone striker against Brentford, partnered with Kike against Cardiff. Patrick Bamford, on loan from Chelsea, is also dangerous, whether deployed out wide or in the hole, predominantly used as a substitute so far this season. Captain Grant Leadbitter, formerly of Sunderland and Ipswich, is top scorer, but top scorer like Gerrard was third-top scorer for Liverpool last season, with only one of seven goals from open play. His usual midfield partner, Dean Whitehead, is suspended, likely replaced by Adam Clayton. You may also recognize one of Boro's central defenders, Daniel Ayala, who will return from suspension.

Remember, it's the League Cup. Of course, I'd like to see some improvement in Liverpool's cohesion, performances, tactics, but the result is pretty much incidental. Liverpool have enough games this season already. Just be better than the dross we've seen in the last two league matches.

That's not asking too much, is it?

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

That may have looked familiar. You may have remembered similar from the previous weekend. But while Liverpool's impotence and general ineptitude was similar, there were some crucial differences from the loss to Aston Villa.

No matter the formation, Liverpool remained broken. Mainly 4-3-3 against Villa (4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3), both 4-4-2 diamond and 3-5-2 against West Ham, but not good in any shape. Which was depressing, as Liverpool had at least looked competent in the diamond's other appearances this season. West Ham's similar formation and fast start rendered that moot, though.

The biggest similarity between the two losses was conceding an early goal, coincidentally, both from set plays. Last season, it was Liverpool who did this to the opposition. Increasingly, that's looking a function of having Luis Suarez in your side, scaring defenders backwards before the whistle even blows. This season, sides have learned that you can get at Liverpool, the quicker the better, and it's fairly safe to assume you won't be punished for it (unless you're Tottenham). I've no idea how to remedy this except for not conceding preventable goals. The only way Liverpool's attack is pushing anyone back at the moment is when Sturridge gets back into the side.

The main difference in the last two losses was in Liverpool's shooting. During Saturday's match, it felt as if Liverpool had better chances, but that might solely be because of Sterling's goal. Or maybe because Liverpool's shot accuracy was better; it could hardly be worse. But both the location and volume were vastly worse. Liverpool took 18 shots against Villa; they could only manage 11 against West Ham. Seven of those 18 shots against Villa came from the danger zone; Liverpool took just one against West Ham. Aside from Sterling's goal, those accurate shots were fairly easy for Adrian, in large part because they came from the wide areas of the box and outside the box – shots with a very low expectation of a goal.

Also, Liverpool struggled to get the ball into the box against Villa. Liverpool struggled to get the ball into the attacking third against West Ham.

60% attacking third accuracy is abhorrent, and both the completion and accuracy statistics are similar to matches at Everton and Spurs last season – matches where Liverpool took an early lead and were able to sit back and blitz the opposition on the counter, not when they were chasing a match after going behind early. And, Liverpool often completely bypassed the midfield against West Ham, which is a big reason why the attacking third totals and accuracy is so low.

A lot of it has to do with Liverpool's personnel. Balotelli – who, again, played okay on Saturday – is a wholly different striker than Daniel Sturridge or Luis Suarez. Liverpool haven't been able to play to his strengths, haven't been able to alter its style to play to his strengths, seemingly because of both tactics and personnel.

Compare where Balotelli received the ball at West Ham to where Sturridge received it against Southampton, another match where Liverpool assuredly weren't at their best, but still found a way to win.

It's no coincidence that Balotelli's best match (and Liverpool's best match, for that matter) was when he played with Sturridge against Tottenham.

Balotelli could drop deep and pull wide while Sturridge made runs in behind, or get into the box to receive crosses when Sturridge dragged defenders into the channels. Neither of those things happened when partnered with Borini or Lambert up front (Balotelli did link better with Borini, "better" being very much a relative term), and a large part of Liverpool's solitary goal came from Balotelli's excellent control when receiving one of Liverpool's 20 crosses into the box (not to take away from Sterling's awareness or excellent finish). That was one of the two successful Liverpool crosses.

Finally, yes, we have to talk about Steven Gerrard. For the second league match in a row, an opposition player both cancelled out his strengths and exploited his weaknesses. First, Agbonlahor, at least while Villa were in the ascendancy in the first half. On Saturday, Downing to an even greater degree.

Using an intelligent winger (for all Downing's faults, so evident when at Liverpool, he is an intelligent footballer) as a #10 was something of a masterstroke by Allardyce, and it's probably something Liverpool will see again. Each side Liverpool's faced this season has added something to the template for disrupting Liverpool (except Tottenham). Downing likes to play wide, is two-footed, and willing to run. He both covered Gerrard when Liverpool were in possession and dragged Gerrard out of position when Liverpool weren't, taking away one of the few layers of protection in front of an already shaky defense which already had to cope with two strikers.

Liverpool, known for being an at-least-competent pressing team, had two tackles and four interceptions in West Ham's half, most clustered on the right flank near the halfway line. Meanwhile, West Ham made five tackles and four interceptions across the width of midfield, which helped force that long passing to bypass midfield. Gerrard and Henderson exchanged 16 passes (most in the second half when Henderson moved deeper with Lallana in the hole), but Lucas and Gerrard exchanged just three (including none from Gerrard to Lucas), while Henderson and Lucas exchanged just three. It was incredibly different than the midfield triangle's passing against Villa, and it's not coincidence that the only match where Gerrard attempted fewer passes was in the win over Tottenham, with Liverpool conceding possession and relying on the counter attack after its early goal.

The inference, which we have a decent amount of evidence for, is that Gerrard has to play with two mobile, high-intensity midfielders who'll both support in defense and link with the attack. Otherwise, he's dragged out of position by players like Downing while Henderson and Lallana try to get forward, or Lucas struggles to track back when asked to fill a shuttling support role. Which puts pressure on the center-backs, which helps lead to all those mistakes we're perpetually ruing.

Ideally, it's Henderson and Allen, but Henderson and Coutinho also worked when the Brazilian was in-form last season, and, in theory, Can should be able to fill the role when fit. But not Lucas, and not Lallana (at least not yet).

And it's probably safe to assume that the captain can't play three matches in a week anymore, not three full 90 minutes at the least. One of this week's matches probably should have seen Lucas take over Gerrard's role, both to see if it's any improvement and to rest the captain. Tomorrow's League Cup at Middlesbrough had better see that change happen.

20 September 2014

Liverpool 1-3 West Ham

Reid 2'
D Sakho 7'
Sterling 26'
Amalfitano 88'

If you keep starting in the worst possible manner, if you keep conceding early goals, you will probably keep losing games.

At the moment, Liverpool are bad. Very bad. Yes, it's with a team still trying to gel. It's without Sturridge and Allen, two very important players. But that's no excuse for the last two league matches, especially the way Liverpool have started those last two league matches.

The only positive from the first half was that Liverpool went into the break down by just one goal.

It took Liverpool even less time to concede today, from West Ham's first opportunity, from West Ham's first set play. An unnecessary foul by Moreno, Henderson beaten at the back post by Tomkins, Skrtel caught ball-watching as Tomkins' header back in found Reid the wrong side of Lovren. Fantastic.

And before we could even start slitting wrists, West Ham had a second, from their second attack. Balotelli outmuscled, maybe fouled, turning the ball over in midfield, Moreno stupidly sucked inside when watching the ball rather than Sakho, Sakho's wide open cross ending up in the back of the net. I refuse to believe that was a shot and not a cross. But had Sakho crossed as he meant to, Valencia would have easily headed it in at the back post. Liverpool are conceding either way from that situation: because they turned the ball over in a dangerous place with everyone trying to spill forward and make amends for the first goal conceded, because the midfield is out of shape, because both fullbacks' positioning is very not good.

Rodgers responded, because Rodgers had to respond with the team so broken and the game nearly beyond Liverpool, bringing on Sakho for Manquillo and switching to three at the back. And it surprisingly paid dividends within minutes, as Sterling got forward from his new wingback role to brilliantly pick up the pieces after Balotelli's initial shot from Henderson's cross was blocked, hammering in an unstoppable effort from the top of the box.

But Liverpool were unable to build on that, and the subsequent best three chances both fell to West Ham: Moreno's tackle and won foul saving what looked an easy goal for Kouyate, Mignolet parrying Valencia's shot on the break, and Tomkins' header wide from a corner.

West Ham had six shots on target in the first half, from 10 in total. Liverpool had three shots in total. Last season is becoming an increasingly distant memory. All I remember now is 2009-10 and 2012-13.

Rodgers once again reacted, bringing on Lallana for Lucas at halftime. Chasing the goal in the second half, Liverpool's attack didn't seem quite as abominable as they were a week ago. West Ham weren't as strong in defense as Villa; Liverpool had chances at an equalizer. Borini shot straight at Adrian when the center to Moreno was on, then the Italian curled a shot narrowly over. Balotelli's fierce shot was parried at the near post, Sakho headed point-blank directly at Adrian from a corner. But those were still half chances, and this side is still unable to either create anything clear cut or truly threaten from a set play, the source of so many goals last season.

West Ham's main defense was Allardyce's usual defense: foul furiously, foul often. The referee is probably eighth or ninth on the list of things which make me want to burn the world, but he had three opportunities to send West Ham players off, but showed yellow twice and completely ignored Adrian's studs into Borini's thigh. And after West Ham kept fouling and time-wasting and fouling and Liverpool had lost what little momentum they'd built up, they conceded a third on the break, from a mistake, when Sakho's clearing header under no pressure went straight to a West Ham player, ending with an Amalfitano toe-poke past a helpless Mignolet.

Liverpool's record so far this season, including the one Champions League game? Win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. This is an inconsistent team. Again, with two key players absent, the need to bed in a bunch of new players, and three matches in a week, this is probably is news to no one.

But everything has gone to absolute hell, and there's little post-loss-anger exaggeration in that statement.

An already porous defense has somehow become even more porous, and continues to make the same mistakes which have cost them points this season. A midfield easily bypassed no matter the shape or personnel, clearly missing Allen and with both Henderson and Gerrard clearly fatigued. An attack in name only. A side which used to blitz opponents from the opening whistle getting blitzed from the opening whistle. The utter inability to even pose a threat from set plays after averaging a set play goal once every 1.6 games last season. You name it, it's gotten worse.

You'd think it'd be easier to fix Liverpool's defense than the attack. Liverpool were never going to score 100 goals without Suarez, and the loss of Sturridge obviously exacerbates the problem. Balotelli – who didn't exactly play poorly today – is a completely different striker than those two. Because he often drops deep, he needs support from wide players cutting in and runners from midfield. He hasn't gotten that support at all, whether in the diamond or 3-5-2 today, or the 4-2-3-1 against Villa, or the 4-3-3 against Ludogorets. Balotelli drops into midfield to pick up the ball out of defense – with the nominal link midfielders bypassed yet again – and there's usually no one beyond him, especially since Borini plays in a similar way. But then Lambert, much slower than Fabio, came on, and Liverpool looked even worse. This is partly why moving Sterling further from goal baffled, even if he did score Liverpool's consolation, and why leaving Markovic on the bench baffled.

But the defense baffles me. Absolutely baffles me. Has for a year now, and it's gotten worse. No matter the personnel, Liverpool look lost. I know Rodgers' preferred system, regardless of formation, leaves them exposed to a certain extent, especially with Gerrard as the deepest midfielder, but there's no explanation for the constant mistakes. And there isn't just one culprit, whether it's Skrtel and Lovren spoiling a set play, Moreno's man getting open too easily, or Sakho heading straight to a West Ham player. Just like it was a combination of errors on the corner conceded against Villa or the counter-attack goal against Ludogorets. Last season it was usually just set plays or counter-attack. But this season it's set plays and open play, deliberate build-up or counter-attack.

There is no balance, no cohesion, in any part of the pitch.

So many things need fixing. Even more than the most pessimistic of us expected at the start of the season. They need fixing fast. And Rodgers will need to do it with limited time on the pitch because Liverpool will have a midweek match for the next month, except when there's yet another international break.

19 September 2014

Liverpool at West Ham 09.20.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.06.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.07.13
0-0 (h) 04.07.13
3-2 Liverpool (a) 12.09.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Ludogorets (h); 0-1 Villa (h); 3-0 Tottenham (a)
West Ham: 2-2 Hull (a); 1-3 Southampton (h); 1-1 Sheffield Utd [Utd win 5-4 pens]

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 2; Gerrard, Moreno, Sturridge 1
West Ham: C Cole, Downing, Noble, D Sakho, Valencia, Zarate 1

Referee: Craig Pawson

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Coutinho
Lallana Balotelli Sterling

With Allen, Sturridge, Can, Johnson, and Flanagan still out, there aren't that many potential changes from Tuesday's line-up. And it'll be interesting to see how Liverpool cope with that after playing a difficult midweek Champions League game.

The one player fit again after an absence, Martin Skrtel, seems almost certain to come back into the XI, as he's been a consistent starter when available for about a year now. And it'll probably be at the expense of Sakho, even though Lovren's arguably been worse when the two have been paired together in the last three matches.

The one other possible change is Markovic or Borini for Lallana. If it's the former, Liverpool will stick with the 4-3-3 used to start the last two matches. If it's the latter, it'll allow Liverpool to revert to the diamond, where they've been vastly more successful. My biases are well known, so I'd rather the diamond whether it's Borini or Lambert who partners Balotelli.

West Ham have and haven't been typical West Ham so far this season. They have been consistently inconsistent: starting the campaign by narrowly losing to 10-man Tottenham, beating the out-of-sorts Crystal Palace, and losing to Sheffield United on penalties in the League Cup with a weakened line-up. The one match where they were the least West Ham was the one match I haven't seen: Monday at Hull, a surprisingly attacking line-up where both sides scored twice.

West Ham started with something like a diamond, shifting to more of a 4-2-1-3 as the match went on, with Zarate playing up front with Sakho and Valencia, and Stewart Downing doing his best impression of a #10. And Downing tallied both of West Ham's assists from the position. I know, writing those words doesn't even make sense. Enner Valencia made his first Premier League start, scoring the first equalizer, and West Ham's three loan signings – Carl Jenkinson, Alex Song, and Morgan Amalfitano – all came off the bench.

So I guess it's little surprise that this is what Allardyce had to say after the match:

“Attractive football and no wins is no good to me, no good to the owners and no good to the supporters."

Keep doing you, Sam.

To be fair, they haven't been as defensively secure as they usually are, as Allardyce's sides usually are. Last season, West Ham kept 14 clean sheets, joint-sixth best in the league despite finishing 13th. Which is four more than Liverpool had. They haven't kept any this season, conceding once against Tottenham and Palace, three at home against Southampton, and twice at Hull. Last season's goals against per game average was 1.34; so far this season it's 1.75. Only Everton, QPR, Newcastle, and Palace have conceded more.

Which, of course, either bodes well or poorly for Liverpool tomorrow, depending on how pessimistic your worldview usually is. Either a leaky defense finds its form against Liverpool's stuttering attack, or Liverpool's stuttering attack finds its form against a leaky defense.

Allardyce has some options tomorrow. If he keeps the same formation that faced Hull, the only possible changes are Song for Kouyate or Jenkinson for Demel. But he could, and probably will, take off one of the forwards for Song, reverting to more of a 4-5-1. West Ham's been 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 in each of the four matches against Liverpool where Allardyce has been in charge. Of course, they've also lost three and drawn one of those matches. The Hammers will be without Matt Jarvis, Kevin Nolan, Joey O'Brien, and some guy named Andy Carroll because of injury.

The mantra for Liverpool matches has been pretty consistent this season. Do better in attack – especially if playing with Balotelli as the lone striker, requiring Liverpool to provide much more support from both the wide players and midfielders than we've seen so far – and don't do anything stupid in defense.

Easier said than done.

17 September 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Ludogorets

Previous Match Infographics: Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

FYI: as usual, here's the formation diagram for thoroughness' sake.

Well, at least that was better. It wasn't great by any means, but better will do after last Saturday.

Liverpool were up against a deep, determined, and well-organized defense for the second time in four days. This time, Liverpool were better at involving the main attackers (which isn't all that surprising with Balotelli and Lallana getting more time together and with Sterling involved), Liverpool took better shots (16 of 23 in the danger zone!), Liverpool were more accurate with their shooting (although 30.4% accuracy still isn't great, and is still well below last season's mark), and – at least until the 91st minute – Liverpool were better at protecting themselves from mistakes on either counters or set plays, although Ludogorets had hit the post on a counter-attacking chance in the 72nd minute.

It took the side awhile to get going, failing to register a shot until the 21st minute. In contrast to Saturday, it was because they were overly frenetic rather than pushed backwards, probably for two reasons: the return to the Champions League coupled with that disastrous start against Villa. In addition, both Coutinho and Lallana were wasteful at times, and remained so until their respective exits.

But unlike against Villa, Liverpool didn't resort to more and more speculative shots from distance, sticking to the game plan despite numerous last-ditch blocks, clearances, and interceptions from Ludogorets' defenders. Rodgers' substitutions improved the side: Lucas added patience, protection, and safe passing in midfield; Borini brought more firepower up front, nearly scoring with his first touch. Liverpool switched to the diamond formation which had brought them the most success this season, the formation which had seen them score five of the six goals so far this season. And then Liverpool finally made the breakthrough in the 82nd minute, mainly thanks to Moreno's cross and Balotelli's strength, but from a move which started with Moreno's tackle in the penalty box and involved nine of the 11 Liverpool players the pitch, going from back to front and flank to flank in the space of 30 seconds.

That should have been game over. That is wasn't is almost unforgivable, only rescued by a defender's poor back pass, a third-string keeper's poor first touch, and Manquillo's intelligence in pressing what might have been a lost cause but wasn't thanks to his perseverance. And he was also clever enough to go down under was what admittedly slight contact, reminding me of the injury time penalty Gerrard "earned" against Atletico Madrid in this competition six years ago.

But let's focus on the goal Liverpool conceded. Yet another comedic calamity of errors which nearly cost the side two points.

We'll start with this series of tweets from Grantland's Mike L. Goodman, as he thoroughly sums up the catastrophe. Embedding them all here would take up way too much space, but I heavily encourage you to click on the link. I'll wait.

The first point needs emphasizing. We all love Liverpool's guns-blazing, take-no-prisoners attack. It was really fun last season, and we've really only seen it at full effect at Tottenham this season. But that Liverpool attacks with so many bodies forward after they finally got the goal, in stoppage time no less, is beyond comprehension.

You try to keep the ball in that position. You try to keep the ball in that position. You try to keep the ball in that position. There is no discussion about that. I imagine, I would hope, that Rodgers is still screaming about it.

Moreno's lapse in judgement is probably most egregious given that he's ostensibly a defender, even if in name only. But it's worth reiterating: there are four players ahead of the ball in that situation. Four! He's not the only culprit.

Still, from there, multiple bad things needed to happen for Ludogorets to score.

This happened less than a minute before Ludogorets' goal. The whole defensive line has pushed up with Liverpool in possession, but (an admittedly retreating) Gerrard is deeper than Lucas and Henderson, not quite between the center-backs but still another line of protection. And everyone's pretty much in position when Ludogorets clears out of defense.

Where's Gerrard on the goal?


Still, from there, multiple bad things needed to happen for Ludogorets to score.

Things like Lovren watching the ball rather than the player running in behind, subsequently a step behind Abalo when the throughball is played, unable to make the diving tackle. And things like Mignolet absolutely losing his mind and charging out, not only failing to reach the attacker but also blocking off Manquillo's attempted covering run. And then all Abalo had to do was slide into a empty net, even though he was off-balance and had been pushed outside the danger zone because of Lovren's attempted tackle. Liverpool wouldn't have been out of trouble by any means, but that shot's never getting past a goalkeeper on his line.

So yes, on the whole, Liverpool were better. Aside from Moreno's late brain cramp, Liverpool's fullbacks were arguably Liverpool's best players: Moreno the most creative, and with an assist; Manquillo again leading the side in both tackles and interceptions while still creating three chances of his own. Liverpool were better, more disciplined in attack, even if better and more disciplined are relative terms, and even though key players (read: Coutinho, Lallana) still disappointed. Balotelli frustrated at times, but his work rate was superlative, as was his goal, which should do his confidence a world of good.

But Liverpool were also very, very lucky. And, yet again, Liverpool made a preventable mistake which ended in a goal conceded. They weren't wholly punished for it this time. But, as happened against Aston Villa, they will be punished more often than not if those mistakes keep occurring.

It's not as if defensive mistakes are a new phenomenon, or that one defender has been responsible for the majority. Liverpool has been prone to defensive mistakes for more than a year now. But last season's side was good enough in attack to make up for most of them.

This side isn't. Not yet, at least.

15 September 2014

Liverpool v Ludogorets Razgrad 09.16.14

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Villa (h); 3-0 Tottenham (a); 1-3 City (a)
Ludogorets: 2-1 Botev Plovdiv (a); 1-1 Beroe (h); 1-0 Steaua Bucharest (h) [6-5 pens]

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: n/a
Ludogorets: 1-0 Steaua Bucharest (h) [6-5 pens]; 0-1 Steaua Bucharest (a); 2-2 Partizan (a); 0-0 Partizan (h); 1-1 F91 Dudelange (a); 4-0 F91 Dudelange (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sterling 2; Gerrard, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Ludogorets: Misidjan 4; Anicet, Bezjak, Marcelinho, Quixada 3; Abalo, Wanderson, Younes 2; Barthe, Espinho 1

Referee: Matej Jug (SVN)

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Coutinho
Lambert Balotelli

I am very curious to see what sort of line-up and formation Rodgers chooses in his first Champions League match.

Once again, his hands are somewhat tied thanks to injury. Sturridge, Can, Johnson, Allen, and Skrtel are all still injured, although the latter two should thankfully be back by the weekend. Markovic will also miss out, suspended for the first two Champions League because of a ban picked up with Benfica.

The only certainty that's different from the loss to Aston Villa is that Sterling will come back into the starting XI. You can guess most of the other starters: the back five, Gerrard, Henderson, Balotelli. But the other two places will be determined by which formation Rodgers thinks will be most effective against very unfamiliar opposition.

I'm tempted to think that Liverpool can get the most out of the available personnel by reverting to the 4-4-2 diamond. More attacking firepower, so obviously needed after Saturday and in Sturridge's absence, Sterling playing centrally, and a decently strong midfield base, although Liverpool will obviously miss both Allen and Can.

But Ludogorets' style may not be suitable for the diamond formation. From Rodgers, in today's press conference:

"They play an open and attacking style of football. They play 4-2-3-1 and the two full-backs look to get forward. They have two controlling players in midfield, a No.10 who moves well and wingers who are probably a little more stretched than you usually see with wingers nowadays.

The diamond can leave you vulnerable on the flanks, although that hasn't been a massive problem when Liverpool have used the formation, partly thanks to the work that Henderson and Allen have put in as the wide midfielders. And the Welshman won't be available tomorrow. With Can also absent, the options opposite Henderson are Coutinho, Lallana, and Lucas. The former two aren't as energetic or defensive – although I'm not entirely sure how much that will be needed – while the latter's mobility has rightfully come into question pretty much every time he's played over the last year or so.

The other options are 4-3-3, with Henderson, Coutinho, and Gerrard in midfield and Sterling and Lallana flanking Balotelli; or 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard and either Henderson or Lucas as the holders and some combination of Sterling, Coutinho, Lallana in the attacking line of three (or Henderson, if Lucas starts). The above 4-3-3 may be more likely – Henderson and Coutinho can press those controlling midfielders; Sterling and Lallana will help protect against the fullbacks getting forward – and I will readily admit I'm biased because I very much favor the diamond in most circumstances.

I won't pretend to know much else (read: pretty much anything) about Ludogorets, and instead direct you to much better-researched previews from Anfield Index, FourFourTwo, and the Liverpool Echo. That both the first- and second-string goalkeeper will miss out through suspension and injury respectively seems important; the only available keeper on Ludogorets' UEFA squad list is 17-year-old Emil Gospodinov, although the aforementioned Anfield Index preview suggests that 23-year-old Georgi Argilashki will start (*shrugs*).

Ludogorets have been playing since mid-July thanks to Champions League qualifiers and the early start to the Bulgarian league. They currently sit fourth in their domestic league, having played eight matches, two points behind CSKA Sofia, but are unbeaten since losing on opening day nearly two months ago. They may not have the talent or name recognition that Liverpool's players have, but they are a more settled side with more match practice.

As if rejoining the Champions League for the first time since 2009 weren't enough motivation, Liverpool have the chance to quickly dispel the bad feelings induced by defeat to Aston Villa. Liverpool have lost consecutive matches under Rodgers just three: to West Brom and Zenit in 2012-13; Southampton and Manchester United (in the League Cup), and Manchester City and Chelsea in 2013-14.

After Saturday's disappointment, Anfield really needs to see the proper response.

Meta: Once again, the usual schedule will be disrupted by a weekday match. I *may* have a match review up sometime during the evening; if I write one, it'll probably be up around 8pm ET and I will let you know on Twitter beforehand. There will definitely be a match infographic up Wednesday. Like for weekday Premier League matches, Champions League match reviews will be infrequent and late at best, but I will have an infographic up the day after. And if there's no match review, I'll try to cover more in the infographic write-up.

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

Just to get you in the mood. Because once again, Liverpool versus Aston Villa is just a little bit of history repeating.

The closest comparison is the 1-3 loss to Villa in Rodgers' first season. Until Saturday, that was the most possession Liverpool have had in a single match since Rodgers became manager. The second half of that 1-3 loss saw the most possession Liverpool have had in a single half under Rodgers until the second half on Saturday. Liverpool dominated the shot totals, but put just 24% on target (well below its average for the season), finally scoring with its last effort thanks to a wicked, fortunate deflection. And that abysmal shot accuracy was still massively better than Liverpool on Saturday, where just one of 18 forced Brad Guzan into a save: a simple save, Sakho's header from a corner landing directly in his arms, in the 11th minute.

But there were also similarities to the reverse fixture last season: an early goal for the away side, then defensive shelling, with the hosts unable to make any breakthrough despite a massive shot dominance, mainly because those hosts were unable to put even a marginal proportion of their shots on target. Meanwhile, the away side took five shots, put just one on target, but scored from that one.

The away side has some sort of voodoo over the home side in this fixture. Since 2009-10, Liverpool have won one, drawn two, and lost three of the last six meetings with Aston Villa at Anfield. And at Villa Park, Liverpool have won four and lost just one. Which, I guess, bodes well for the return fixture in a few months.

Liverpool have now conceded the first goal in 25 of the 80 Premier League matches since Rodgers took over. They've won five, drawn eight, and lost 12 when that's happened. Incidentally, the only one of those five wins to come at Anfield was against Newcastle in the last match of last season. The others were at Cardiff, Fulham, Fulham, and (because of course) Aston Villa.

One shot on target out of 18 in total is 5.6% accuracy. The only other matches which came close to that mark since Rodgers became manager both happened in 2012-13: the 0-3 loss at West Brom to start the season, where Liverpool put just two of 16 on target (12.5%), and the 0-0 draw with Stoke, where Liverpool put two of 18 on target (11.1%). Since those matches, nearly two years ago, Liverpool haven't been below 20% accuracy in a match, a mark set at Aston Villa last season, when Liverpool took just five shots but scored with the lone shot on target.

It wasn't as if Liverpool took horrible shots yesterday. We've seen matches where Liverpool were much more desperate and much less judicious (cough Chelsea at Anfield cough), although the shot-by-shot section demonstrates how Liverpool unsurprisingly fired off more shots from distance as time ebbed away. Seven of the 18 efforts came from the danger zone, 10 of 18 from inside the box. Liverpool's shooting accuracy was just that bad. Markovic's two early efforts; Balotelli, Sakho, and Lovren's headers from corners; and Coutinho's shot off the post were all chances that could and probably should have at least hit the target, and on another day, maybe Liverpool would have eked a slightly undeserved draw.

But Michael Caley's Expected Goals map shows that Liverpool had lots of marginal chances, while Villa had the best two chances. And Villa took one of them. That's all they needed.

The major problem was Liverpool's inability to fully utilize its attackers despite that overwhelming dominance in possession. This is depressingly demonstrated by the passing network: thick black lines in midfield and defense, paltry thin lines amongst the front four, both before and after substitutions. Liverpool completed 652 passes in total, but only 139 in the attacking third: just 21.3%. Unsurprisingly, most of those came across the top of the box and on the flanks rather than into the penalty area, creating just one chance inside the area, completing just four passes into the area. That's horrific, and it's not as if Villa had to make multiple tackles or interceptions to prevent those passes, although 34 of their 42 clearances came inside the box.

Undoubtedly, part of that is due to starting three unfamiliar attackers: one making his full debut after missing preseason through injury, one making his first start after two substitute appearances, and one making his second start. All three joined Liverpool this summer. Some disjointed play was to be expected, especially given the troubles Liverpool have had with Saturday's opponents, who defend deep and in numbers, especially after scoring a goal that Liverpool probably should have prevented. But it shouldn't have been that disjointed.

At the very least, this has to be a two-fold learning experience (three-fold if you count again conceding a preventable set play goal): for the new players involved, gelling as an attacking unit, and for the team as a whole, again needing to find a way behind a parked bus. Because it won't be the last time those players have to play together and it won't be the last time that Liverpool see that strategy.

13 September 2014

Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa

Agbonlahor 9'

There's just something about Aston Villa. Something soul-killing. Something like death warmed over. I could have sworn I was watching Liverpool's last two matches against Villa at Anfield.

We've spoken before about Liverpool not learning from its mistakes. And we're going to do it again. I've a terrible feeling this won't be the last time either.

A uncoordinated Liverpool, from back to front? Check, just as in the last two meetings at Anfield. An unfamiliar formation, including both Henderson and Gerrard sitting in midfield? Check, same as last season's 2-2 draw. A preventable early goal conceded after Villa surprisingly dominated possession from the start? Check, just as in the last two meetings at Anfield.

Once again, Villa were the more energetic side to start the match, despite being the away side, despite being involved in the relegation battle in each of the last three seasons, despite bringing in just Aly Cissokho and Tom Cleverley this summer, players who seem to be permanent punchlines. Liverpool are supposed to be the team that blitzes its opponent from the opening whistle, not Aston Villa.

And once again, Liverpool conceded the first goal, with multiple chances to stop it from happening. Sakho should have cleared the ball rather than trying to play his way out, allowing Agbonlahor to win the debatable corner. Liverpool could have cleared the first or second ball from the corner; Senderos won his header, hitting Manquillo, with the ball falling perfectly for Agbonlahor, all while Mignolet sat static on his line. Literally, perfectly; Agbonlahor could not have asked for it in a better position, and subsequently jammed the rebound home. Because those are the things that happen in this fixture.

Villa could have easily gone two-up soon after, which would have made today even more like the 1-3 loss almost two years ago, but Senderos missed a completely free header, from yet another set play. After that, Villa were happy to sit back, keep Liverpool at bay, maybe even counter-attack every now and then. There wasn't much counter-attacking (thankfully, I guess), but the defense certainly did its job.

It probably wasn't a good idea to start with three attackers bought this summer: one starting his second match, one making his first full start after two sub appearances, and one making his actual debut. And, unsurprisingly, Balotelli, Lallana, and Markovic played as if they'd never met. Time and time again, each wandered into where the other wanted to play. There was no fluency to their passing, no understanding of each other's movement, no runners beyond when Balotelli came deep, and no link with midfield because Henderson surprisingly sat deeper in a two-man pairing with Gerrard. It's a bad day when you make Philippe Senderos look like an immovable man-mountain.

Absences assuredly hurt, and I'm more than willing to blame the international break for some of Liverpool's problems, but these things happen. That's what a deeper squad was supposed to protect against. Any of Sturridge, Allen, Can, or even Skrtel would have made Liverpool better today. Liverpool missed each and every one of them. As would using Sterling from the start rather than a 61st-minute substitute, even though resting him made a certain amount of sense after playing 180 minutes of internationals and with Ludogorets to come on Tuesday.

Some credit's obviously due to the way Aston Villa defended. Paul Lambert's pretty good at taking points off of the top sides: not just Liverpool but beating Arsenal away, and Chelsea and City at home last season. It's the other matches, where Villa actually has to play some football, where he gets in trouble. Villa's game plan of kicking Mario Balotelli into irrelevancy also worked fairly well (thanks, Lee Mason). Still, Liverpool made it easy for them, whether in committing stupid mistakes, relying on crosses to no one, or attempting incredibly unlikely shots from distance.

Liverpool's switch to the more-familiar 4-3-3 at halftime made the midfield marginally more cohesive, but did nothing to improve the final third play. Until the 81st minute, after Liverpool had again changed formations and brought on Borini and Lambert for Markovic and Balotelli, the best chances remained marginal headers, each one off-target except for Sakho's soft header at Guzan in the 11th minute.

That's really, really, really bad. I've-been-doing-this-for-a-long-time-and-I've-never-seen-such-terrible-shot-accuracy bad.

Last season, set plays were often Liverpool's savior in these situations. That never looked like happening today.

But in the 81st minute, Coutinho was a foot away from providing the get-out-of-jail card, hitting the post with one of his trademark shots from distance – he usually gets one of four or so on-target – with Sterling hitting Henderson with the rebound (it was probably off-target anyway). And then Liverpool resumed its frustrated, Sisyphean struggle, thrashing around unsuccessfully for the final ten minutes, summed up nicely by Lambert trying to break away in injury time, then having to stop when he realized no teammate was anywhere near him. Everyone was a stranger today. It is the fourth match of the season, after all, after an international break no less.

All that complaining aside – and believe me, I could complain a lot more – we knew there would be growing pains and we knew Liverpool could struggle with the aforementioned key players absent. It's small consolation, but Liverpool are still two points better than in the same fixtures last season.

If it's just a one-time occurrence, just Aston Villa voodoo, it's a lot easier to stomach. But I'm still afraid there's more too often. We've already said, already knew that Liverpool will need to be better against the bus parkers. And we're still saying it.

12 September 2014

Liverpool v Aston Villa 09.13.14

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 1.18.14
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.24.13
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.31.13
1-3 Villa (h) 12.15.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Tottenham (a); 1-3 City (a), 2-1 Southampton (h)
Villa: 2-1 Hull (h); 0-1 Leyton Orient (h); 0-0 Newcastle (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 2; Gerrard, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Villa: Weimann 2; Agbonlahor 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Coutinho
Lallana Balotelli Sterling

Well that was a productive international break. Sturridge? Out for two to three weeks. Can? Out for six weeks. Allen? Doubtful with a knee problem. With Johnson, Skrtel, and Flanagan still carrying the injuries incurred before the break. Fantastic.

At least Adam Lallana is finally fit, and looks almost certain to make his debut. And I'm curious to see where it'll be: most likely on the flanks of a 4-3-3, especially given Sturridge's absence, but he also seems capable of filling a midfield role in that formation, similar to how Coutinho plays in the position.

Thanks to Liverpool's new-found depth, even with the aforementioned absences, there are other options. 4-4-2 diamond with Lambert, Sterling, or Markovic playing off Balotelli. 4-3-3 with Markovic on the flank and either Coutinho or Lallana in midfield. Even a 4-2-3-1 with Gerrard and Lucas if Allen's really out, as we saw against Southampton, although I hope this won't be the choice.

That Coutinho travelled to Brazil for this week's friendlies, coming on as a sub against both Colombia and Ecuador, seemingly makes him less likely to start, but given Liverpool's injuries, I expect he'll have to play some role tomorrow. There's also a rumor that Sterling will be rested. Which makes sense, as he's played a ton of matches recently, including two 90 minutes for England over the last week, and Liverpool have its first Champions League match in nearly five years on Tuesday. If that's the case, Markovic seemingly has to start opposite Lallana/Coutinho if it's 4-3-3, or it'll be Balotelli and Lambert in the 4-4-2 diamond with a midfield composed of something like Coutinho, Lallana, Henderson, and Gerrard. Assuming Allen is out with injury and Lucas remains out of favor.

Sure, it's still incredibly early, but Aston Villa are currently a surprising third. It hasn't been the toughest schedule: Hull and Newcastle at home and Stoke away, but they've still taken seven of nine points. The next four matches – at Liverpool, v Arsenal, at Chelsea, v Manchester City – will be far more of a test.

But Villa's still a side that's given Rodgers' Liverpool problems in the past: a supremely disappointing 2-2 draw at Anfield and narrow, fortunate 1-0 win at Villa last season; that 1-3 loss at Anfield in 2012-13. Each of those setbacks featured some self-incurred Liverpool struggles – the insane 4-2-4 formation in the 2-2 draw; supreme defensive shelling after an early goal in the 1-0 win; multiple defensive mistakes in the 1-3 loss – but Villa have a template, and it's a template that other opponents have used to punish Liverpool before. A deep, rigid, determined defense packing the final third, then quick and dangerous with long balls and pace on the counter-attack, especially though Weimann and Agbonlahor.

Tom Cleverley, picked up on loan from United on deadline day, seems the only likely change from Villa's last XI against Stoke, most likely replacing Kieran Richardson. Guzan; Hutton, Senderos, Vlaar, Cissokho; Westwood, Cleverley, Delph; N'Zogbia, Agbonlahor, Weimann. The same eleven players have started all three of Villa's league matches so far. Paul Lambert loves loves loves a stable side. You may also recognize Villa's current left back. No Aly Cissokho jokes please. Ex-Liverpool players, even terrible ones, have a way of punishing their former club.

This will be as much of a test as Tottenham was two weeks ago, albeit a different test. Then, Liverpool's opponents were more talented, but Liverpool faced a side they'd beaten comprehensively in the last two matches. A side that Liverpool matched up well with, a side prone to going "well shit, we're boned again" once Liverpool went two goals ahead.

Tomorrow's opponent plays a very different style, a style different than Liverpool's three previous opponents this season, has troubled Liverpool in all four previous meetings with Brendan Rodgers as manager, and should be confident given their results from the first three matches of the campaign. For the first time this season, for the first time since losing to Chelsea and drawing at Palace, Liverpool will have to slice and dice through a very packed defense while not doing anything stupid in defense.

01 September 2014

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

Two matches from last season were the template for Sunday's victory.

No, neither were against Tottenham, where Liverpool similarly won handily, but also dominated possession and passing totals. They were 4-0 against Everton and 3-0 at Southampton, who, incidentally, were managed by Mauricio Pochettinho.

Against Everton, Liverpool played 4-3-3, albeit a lopsided 4-3-3 with Coutinho in midfield and Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling up front. The match against Southampton was the first time we saw Liverpool in a 4-4-2 diamond. Balotelli came nowhere near replicating Suarez's output, completing just eight passes and putting just one of five shots on-target, but having that extra forward up front made a massive difference in both how many shots Liverpool took – 17, compared to 12 and 11 in the last two matches – and how the opposition were forced to defend. As did using Sterling in a floating role at the tip of the diamond rather than limiting him to a flank.

Both of those matches last season featured an early Liverpool goal, allowing the team to settle into a groove, and once the second was scored, keep the opposition at bay then counter-attack at will. Liverpool really should have added at least another goal, replicating the scoreline against Everton, if not more.

Like both Everton and Southampton, Tottenham had a mountain of possession in Liverpool's half, but did little with it. At the time, the match against Everton saw Liverpool with its second-lowest possession total under Brendan Rodgers: 39.4%. Liverpool had even less yesterday, and Tottenham's second half 70.3% possession was the most any opposition has had in a single half against Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, the only time Liverpool have been held under 30% in a half.

Both of those previous matches ended in clean sheets, which was the exception rather than the rule last season: the defense shelling unusually well and without making any crucial mistakes. Well, one mistake yesterday (which led to Tottenham's only shot on target), when Lovren charged out but failed to clear a ball he should have let Sakho deal with, but one which thankfully went unpunished, partly due to Mignolet and partly due to Chadli putting his shot too close to Mignolet. As said in yesterday's match review, I'm curious to see if Liverpool can repeat the performance when (not if) Skrtel reclaims his starting role.

Even Liverpool's final goal was similar to that against Everton: one player winning possession around the halfway line, then tearing past defenders who were pushed high up the pitch trying to rescue the game. Last season, it was Suarez. This season, Moreno. That'll probably be the last time we compare those two players.

But Liverpool did certain things even better than in those two matches last season. That Tottenham were only allowed seven shots despite 60.9% possession is amazing. That's 66.7 completed passes per shot. For comparison, Liverpool attempted a shot every 16.5 passes yesterday, similar to the 13.4 passes per shot against Everton and better than the 25.4 passes per shot at Southampton. Tottenham attempted 160 attacking third passes, but look at how few were completed into the box. The vast majority are 5-10 yards outside the box, or along the flanks.

All three key passes into the box came from deep: a ball over the top to Adebayor, which beat Liverpool's defenders but Adebayor could only chip onto the roof of the net when Mignolet reduced the angle; the ball to Chadli where Liverpool's center-backs (read: Lovren) both went for the ball; and a deep cross to Adebayor, with his contested header looping upwards. Yes, Tottenham probably should have scored from at least one of those, but Liverpool did exceptionally well to limit chances created from close range.

Luis Suarez was the key man in both of those matches last season, with a goal and assist in both. That Liverpool were able to replicate the formula without him, against opposition which expects to be in the battle for a top-four place, is incredibly encouraging. As is the fact they did so with a defense that had made a combined 24 appearances for Liverpool, featuring three defenders signed this summer, including two fullbacks who are all of 20 and 22 years old and were signed from La Liga. One of those fullbacks led the team in interceptions and blocked crosses, and tied for the most successful tackles; the other scored the crucial game-killing third goal.

And Liverpool did this in only the third match of this young season, despite this summer's massive overhaul. Of course, that doesn't ensure future success, and the template certainly won't work against every opponent. But it's still a very promising start.