28 February 2015

Liverpool v Manchester City 03.01.15

7am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 City (a) 08.25.14
3-2 Liverpool (h) 04.13.14
1-2 City (a) 12.26.13
2-2 (a) 02.03.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Besiktas aet (a); 2-0 Southampton (a); 1-0 Besiktas (h)
City: 1-2 Barcelona (h); 5-0 Newcastle (h); 4-1 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 6; Lallana, Own Goal 4; Coutinho 3; Henderson, Lambert, Markovic, Moreno, Sturridge 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
City: Agüero 17; Silva 9; Yaya Toure 7; Jovetic, Lampard 5; Dzeko 3; Fernandinho, Milner, Nasri 2; Clichy, Demichelis, Fernando, Zabaleta 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Coutinho

So, who's gonna be fit after last Thursday?

That question includes players both left out and included against Besiktas. Coutinho, rested, will return, but that might not necessarily be the case for Henderson and Sakho, who just had minor knocks.

And then there are concerns over those who played in Thursday's vigorous contest. Especially Sturridge, still needing to be managed after his long injury layoff. But you could voice similar concerns about Sterling, Moreno, Can, and Allen, who all played 120 minutes and did quite a bit of running.

Other than Sturridge, who will almost certainly be better served coming off the bench, I'm hopefully guessing everyone will be available. Sakho and Henderson are key pieces; the former is Liverpool's best defender, the latter is not only a vital box-to-box midfielder but also allows Can to play in defense. Without those two, it's basically the back seven we saw at Besiktas and no thank you please no. Liverpool's potency will be worrisome regardless of personnel, but Liverpool also need much better link-up play between defense and midfield, better passing out from the back, than they showed on Thursday.

City, despite their similarly packed fixture list, have no injury concerns. They've a full strength XI to pick from, one which will probably be 4-4-2. But that doesn't make it any easier to forecast. I'll guess Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy; Navas, Fernando, Yaya Toure, Silva; Agüero, Bony. But it could be Mangala in defense. It could be Kolarov at left-back, as he'll have to play there at Barcelona next week. It could be Fernandinho that partners Yaya Toure. Nasri and Milner are both options on the flanks, or Milner could also be used in midfield. It could be Dzeko rather than Bony up front, but I expect the Ivorian to make his first start for City.

Having gobs and gobs of money must be nice.

And Manchester City have seemingly returned to the peak of their powers – an unsurprising 1-2 loss to Barcelona notwithstanding – since the African Cup of Nations ended. Without Toure (and the just-signed Bony), City drew three and lost two. Since, they utterly demolished Stoke and Newcastle by a combined score of 9-1 (and, yes, lost to Barcelona, but did I mention that was totally expected?). That's how important Toure is to their side. Now, witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station.

Surprisingly, City haven't won at Anfield in 12 years, since Anelka's double in 2002-03. Anfield is the only ground that City haven't won at since Abu Dhabi's takeover in 2008. But, for some reason, that statistic doesn't make me feel more comfortable. Everything ends, after all. Nor does the fact that Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 10 league matches.

This is the last match in Liverpool's brutal run. There are obviously difficult fixtures to come, but nothing of the likes of Everton then Tottenham then Southampton then City, while also in the Europa League. Liverpool are now out of Europe – both a good and bad thing (mostly bad) – but drew, beat, and beat those Premier League opponents, setting themselves up for an unlikely run at the last Champions League spot.

Now, just 62 hours away losing in Istanbul, this. Fatigue be damned, injuries be damned. Against the defending league champions, needing a result to keep pace with their competitors for a Champions League place.

Once more into the breach, dear friends.

27 February 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Besiktas

Previous Match Infographics: Southampton (a), Besiktas (h), Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

Match data from Who Scored, as StatsZone doesn't cover the Europa League. Which means no Passing Network because StatsZone is the only service which carries pass combinations (you can still find the players' average position at ESPN FC though).

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

Yesterday saw Liverpool's 43rd match of the season, the same total that Liverpool played in all of 2013-14. So it's probably not coincidence that Liverpool started fairly brightly, but seemed dead on their feet by the time Besiktas scored, holding on for the penalty kick lottery by the least little bit of their fingernails.

Liverpool should have taken the lead in the first half, during the 20-25 minute spell when Liverpool were clearly on top, but when they didn't – and it's certainly not the first time Liverpool have paid for an inability to score – it was a matter of damage limitation, hoping that they could keep the narrow 1-0 lead from the first leg.

That Liverpool did not attempt a single shot after the 56th minute, through the last 64 minutes of the match, is a very bad thing.

And, yes, we can blame Liverpool's packed fixture list – for both fatigue and injuries – for a lot of that. Four certain starters and one probable starter out injured: Henderson, Coutinho, Gerrard, Sakho, and Lucas. Another missing through suspension. Just two of five senior central midfielders fit, including one whose presence is much more important in defense.

It's hard to argue that Besiktas didn't deserve to win that tie. There were very fine margins, but Bilic's game plan worked better than Rodgers' game plan, and Besiktas were by far the better side by the end of the yesterday's match.

Bilic's changes yesterday changed the match: switching Töre and Sahan opened up Liverpool in the second half, Arslan troubled Liverpool much more than Jose Sosa. And, you may remember, he also scored the game-winner. Rodgers' changes either did little or baffled, especially removing Balotelli rather than Sturridge. Balotelli had been in control of himself despite the early yellow, and was crucial to Liverpool keeping possession, if only briefly, in Besiktas' half, an outlet that Liverpool very much needed. Sturridge, despite taking Liverpool's most threatening shot and creating Liverpool's other good chance, still very much looked a step slow and off the pace, needing much more time on the ball than Besiktas would ever allow.

Over two legs, Besiktas took more shots, created more chances, had a higher pass accuracy, made more saves, committed fewer defensive errors, and made more successful tackles, dribbles, and block. That Liverpool made it to penalty kicks speaks well to the defensive improvement we've seen over the last few months.

But at the same time, the only reason that Besiktas didn't win the tie by more, didn't win the tie without needing extra time or penalty kicks, is the same problem that's so often plagued Liverpool. Eight shots in the first leg, just one on target. 21 shots in the second leg, just six on target. Over two legs, 24.1% shot accuracy, worse than Liverpool's in either leg of the tie. At the end of 210 minutes, these were very similar sides – similar strengths, similar weaknesses, and similar home and away tactics – and needing penalty kicks to set them apart seemed only fitting.

Yes, Liverpool made it difficult for Besiktas, forcing 20 of those 29 shots to come from outside the box, allowing just five Danger Zone shots in 210 minutes. Incidentally, none of those five Danger Zone shots were on target. Still, Besiktas also failed to take six excellent chances over those two legs. Three were from set plays: first half headers from Gülüm and Kavlak a week ago, Ba blasting off the cross bar in second half injury time yesterday. Three were from open play, and they were the only three memorable saves Mignolet had to make over two legs: Ba's breakaway a week ago, Sahan's effort from the left-side of the box in the 40th minute, and Töre's blast from the same spot that Arslan scored from in extra time.

Yesterday was a match in keeping with the rest of Liverpool's European campaign. It looked an awful lot like the away match at Basel – good but not great opposition, but an even worse performance from an understrength and/or underperforming Liverpool – and it's the same result as that away match at Basel. Liverpool played eight European games this season. Liverpool scored all of six goals (four against the mighty Ludogorets) and kept a clean sheet in just one match.

In two seasons, Brendan Rodgers' European record is now 9W-D4-7L, an average of 1.55 points per game. Remove the 2012-13 Europa League qualifiers, against Gomel and Hearts, and it's 6W-3D-7L (1.3ppg).

Even worse is this:

That's Rodgers' European away record not including the 2012-13 qualifiers against Gomel and Hearts (both 1-0 wins). That's horrific. Five shutout losses, a 1-0 win over Udinese, a 2-2 draw at Ludogorets, and that insane 5-3 match against Young Boys. Aside from that match at Young Boys, they've all been absolutely dire to watch as well.

And Liverpool have now lost both knockout ties they were involved in.

Sure, there are lots of ifs and buts. If everyone, or even one or two more players, had been available. If Sturridge or Sterling had taken a first-half chance. If Lallana hadn't missed a sitter in the first leg. If Liverpool had chosen a different fifth penalty taker (although, I hate blaming penalty-takers for misses, and feel sympathy for Lovren, who at least had the stones to take it). Etc etc etc.

And there are one or two rays of positivity. Liverpool's defense remained pretty decent, even with the two enforced changes (although it'd certainly have been better without those changes). Alberto Moreno was pretty excellent yesterday, as were Allen and Mignolet to a lesser extent. Liverpool had all those aforementioned key players missing and everyone else fatigued and still almost made it through.

But, once again, it wasn't good enough. And now, Liverpool have *checks watch* slightly more than 44 hours before hosting last season's defending champions in a match that was already crucial to the league campaign, and has now become even more important.

25 February 2015

Liverpool at Besiktas 02.26.14

1:00pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1 (or Fox Sports Go and Fox Soccer 2Go apps)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Southampton (a); 1-0 Besiktas (h); 2-1 Palace (a)
Besiktas: 0-1 Eskisehirspor (a), 0-1 Liverpool (a); 3-2 Bursaspor (h)

Previous European matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Besiktas (h); 1-1 Basel (h); 2-2 Ludogorets (a); 0-1 Real (a); 0-3 Real (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Besiktas: 0-1 Liverpool (a); 1-0 Spurs (h); 2-2 Asteras (a); 2-1 Partizan (h); 4-0 Partizan (a); 1-1 Spurs (a); 1-1 Asteras (h); 0-1 Arsenal (a); 0-0 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard 2; Henderson, Lambert 1
Besiktas: Ba 5; Töre 3; Kavlak, Özyakup, Tosun 1

Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN)

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Lovren
Ibe Can Allen Moreno
Lallana Sterling

Unless Rodgers is really going to spring a surprise, there's not a lot that Liverpool can do with tomorrow's line-up.

Gerrard and Lucas remain injured, Markovic's suspended for three more matches, and now Henderson, Coutinho, Sakho, and Johnson are also out. Henderson has a minor ankle problem, Sakho's still bothered by the hip injury which kept him out of Sunday's match, Johnson's ill, and Coutinho's finally being rested.

So, unless Jordan Williams or Jordan Lussey make an unexpected appearance, the central midfield has to be Allen and Can. And if that's the case, the defense has to be Toure, Skrtel, Lovren, unless Javi Manquillo comes in at right center-back for his first appearance in a month, cup ties against Wimbledon and Bolton his only appearances in 2015.

Liverpool have a few more options up front, but I'd still be surprised if it's anything other than Sterling, Lallana, and Sturridge. Maybe Balotelli partners Sturridge with either Sterling or Lallana left out, maybe Balotelli replaces Sturridge with an eye on Sunday's match against Manchester City. Maybe Rodgers remembers which room he locked Lambert and Borini in. But I doubt it. Not with so many other senior players absent.

And even with all the above players absent, I also highly doubt that Liverpool would shift from the three-at-the-back system which has seen so much improvement over the last three months. That's gonna stay the same, regardless of how many players change.

Besiktas, coming off a weekend loss to 12th-place Eskisehirspor – just the second time the club have lost back-to-back matches this season – have injury concerns of their own. Attackers Demba Ba and Töre are questionable, but I'd expect both to be available if at all possible. Starting keeper Zengin remains injured, while both Gülüm and Ramon are suspended after picking up yellow cards in the last leg. And with defenders Koybasi and Milosevic already long-term casualties and Tomas Sivok not on Besiktas' Europa League player list, the home side will be starting a very makeshift defense. Either Atinc Nukan or midfielder Uysai will be drafted in at center-back, while I've no idea who'll start at left-back. Daniel Opare, joining on-loan from Porto last month, but yet to make an appearance for the club and usually a right-back? The other of the two players capable of starting at center-back? Someone else I've never heard of? Your guess really is as good as mine, and might even be better.

Regardless, Liverpool will look to take advantage of that weakness, even though I'd expect a lot less attacking in general from a Liverpool side away from home with a one-goal advantage and with many of its own regulars missing. As against Southampton, Liverpool will look to the counter-attack, especially Ibe against the stand-in left-back and Sterling and Sturridge against the unfamiliar center-back pairing.

Liverpool simply have to not lose tomorrow. "Simply." The suspicion is that should lead to a counter-attacking strategy – midfielders and defenders denying space in Liverpool's half, then looking to break through the front three – but this is still Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, even if it's not last year's Liverpool. An early goal at the Ataturk would go a long way toward sealing the tie, not allowing Besiktas' unfamiliar defense the time to settle into a rhythm. Which, incidentally, is what Southampton attempted to do to Liverpool on Sunday. You remember how that went for Southampton.

Over the last few months, these two sides have taken more points because of their defense rather than their attack. But, and it seems obvious to say, this match will be won by goals, by the team with the better attack. Because you can't expect two makeshift defenses to go through 90 minutes without conceding.

Which, I expect you'll remember, is exactly how last season's Liverpool liked it.

23 February 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Southampton

Previous Match Infographics: Besiktas (h), Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), 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.

For the first time in a long time, this Liverpool almost kinda sorta reminded you of last year's Liverpool.

Score early, soak up pressure, extend the lead with direct counter-attacks. Liverpool remain nowhere near as potent as last year's side, so Liverpool have to be much, much better at soaking up pressure. And, somehow, they did so, by hook and by crook, before finally getting the game-killing second – admittedly, thanks to Targett's mistake – on one of those counter-attacks.

Liverpool have taken fewer than 10 shots in seven of Brendan Rodgers' 102 league matches. Twice in his first season, three times last season, and twice so far this season. Yesterday was only the second time that's happened and Liverpool still scored two or more goals, only the third time that's happened and Liverpool still won the match.

In case you're curious, here are the match infographics for Villa, Newcastle, Wigan, 1-2 Chelsea, 1-1 Chelsea, and Hull.

I guess it's surprising that Liverpool actually won three of the seven. Yesterday's performance was probably closest to the 1-0 win over Villa at the beginning of last season, a defensive shell reliant on a basically non-existent counter-attack after an early goal. This Southampton side is vastly better than that Villa side. There are similarities in each of the results, except the 4-0 win at Wigan – which was, however, the only result with both similar shot accuracy and goal conversion – which was something of a Luis Suarez-led fluke. Because every now and then, Suarez did things like single-handedly score a hat-trick from just four shots.

I'd also like to point out that 33.3% is, by some distance, Liverpool's best goal conversion in a match this season, even if it's an admittedly small sample size. The next best, the only other match over 20%, was Liverpool's 3-1 win at Leicester, a win that was very much aided by Leicester's defense. Southampton's defense, even considering Targett's mistake, is light-years better than Leicester's.

Another key similarity to those other matches? The three times Liverpool have won, Liverpool have kept a clean sheet.

Liverpool were admittedly very lucky to keep a clean sheet yesterday. Somehow, Liverpool made it through the match without an Opta-defined error, but three mistakes nearly led to two goals and a sending-off in the first half, one from each of Liverpool's three center-backs. Can, caught infield and ball-watching when playing on an unfamiliar side, let Djuricic in behind from a ball over the top, lucky to get away unscathed when Djuricic threw himself to the ground under little contact. The second penalty claim came because Skrtel unnecessarily charged out to try to head a ball that Can had covered, putting Elia through on goal in the space that Skrtel had vacated. And Lovren did the same thing that Can did on the long ball which Mignolet handled inches outside his area.

Most days, Liverpool are punished for at least one of those. Every now and then, like the aforementioned 1-3 loss at Hull last season, Liverpool would be punished for all three. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

It's probably not coincidence those three mistakes all happened in the first half, and it's a good example of why managers really dislike making changes in defense. One center-back started his first match since mid-December, another started on the opposite side for the first time since he joined the club. But the defense improved after that frightening start, with Southampton opportunities few and far between in the second half until a final late flurry when Liverpool were two-up, a flurry which was all sound and little fury. Credit goes to both the individual defenders, who eventually figured out their roles, and Rodgers, whose halftime changes – the defensive line, especially Lovren, playing deeper, coupled with Moreno replacing Markovic – made a difference.

And credit also goes to Mignolet, who made four excellent saves: on Elia just after the second penalty shout, the accidental handball just outside the box with Elia through on goal, Djuricic's deflected effort just before halftime, and Tadic's tricky free kick in the 78th. Even if there's an argument that Mignolet should have been sent off in the 44th minute (I'll again remind that the PGMOL said Friend made the right decision by not calling handball), I'm still most impressed by that moment, simply because he was quick and decisive off his line to get into position to deny Elia, to make up for Lovren's mistake. Mignolet playing sweeper-keeper is not something we've often seen.

So yes, Liverpool were lucky. But the fact that Liverpool have now kept five consecutive clean sheets away from home in the league is not solely down to luck. Liverpool are allowing about the same amount of shots per match since the switch to three at the back (11.2 before, 11.0 since), but have dramatically cut their goals conceded per match (1.27 before, 0.9 since, a stat that'd look even better without the fluky 0-3 loss at United). And it's been accompanied by an almost exactly similar rise in goals scored per match before and since (1.27 before, 1,73 since).

So yes, Liverpool were lucky. But Liverpool have also been demonstrably better in almost every area of the pitch.

22 February 2015

Liverpool 2-0 Southampton

Coutinho 3'
Sterling 74'

I've written it before, but I haven't written it often this season. It is far better to be lucky and good rather than lucky or good. And infinitely preferable to unlucky and sometimes good, sometimes bad, and often flawed. Which has been the dominant theme this season.

By all rights, Liverpool could have conceded two, three, even four in the first half. The first 15 minutes were an utter abomination aside from the best goal that Coutinho has scored for Liverpool and probably will ever score for Liverpool.

Southampton had two very viable penalty shouts in the first four minutes. Within 30 seconds, Đuricic was in from a long ball over the top, and went down under next to no contact from Emre Can (surprisingly starting on the left with Lovren on the right after Sakho was ruled out with a hip problem). No call was probably the right decision, but you've seen them given. Three minutes later, a much better claim, Allen chasing down Elia, narrowly missing the ball with his attempted tackle and taking out the player, which had to have been unseen by both referee and linesman. I'm admittedly incredibly biased. It was absolutely a penalty.

But neither was given, and those no-calls bracketed Liverpool's goal of the season to date, a perfectly placed 30-yard blast from Coutinho, giving Forster absolutely no chance on a shot that cannoned off the underside of the bar and into the net. It was an unbelievably frenetic start to what would remain a frenetic match.

Liverpool settled after that storm: still under pressure, still reliant on a misfiring counter-attack, but better, able to actually keep possession on occasion. And Kevin Friend was at least consistent, ignoring Liverpool's claims for a penalty when Fonte got both Sterling and the ball, another that you've seen given and what would almost certainly have been a foul on any other part of the pitch.

Chances were few and far between for Southampton, nonexistent for Liverpool, but controversy was never far off.

In the 44th minute, Liverpool's defense was beaten by yet another long ball over the top, Elia racing behind Skrtel and Lovren, and Mignolet rushed out to close down. And handled outside the box. Both Friend and his linesman were unmoved, and the PGMOL actually came out after the match and said it was the right decision, Mignolet blocking the ball with his chest before it accidentally ricocheted off his arm. But there was no way that referee or linesman could have seen that in real time. Or seen that Mignolet was inches outside his area. So when there's that uncertainty, no decision is the usual and probably correct decision, especially when it's a decision that would radically change the game. Not that it's any consolation to Southampton, who were soon infuriated by another non-call on a potential Lovren handball – which absolutely wasn't, as his arms were at his sides.

Thankfully, the second half was a different story. Southampton brought on Schneiderlin for Steven Davis, Liverpool Moreno for Markovic, and Southampton remained the more dominant side. But it was dominant in possession only; Liverpool were rarely under the pressure they faced in the first half. Skrtel and Mignolet were phenomenal, Lovren and Can ranged from acceptable to decent (and, to be fair, "acceptable" is "phenomenal" for Dejan Lovren given his season so far).

Liverpool's defense played deeper, denying the long balls which led to Southampton's best chances in the first half. Southampton were limited to an abhorrent shot from Pelle after one of the few slick passing moves through Liverpool's midfield and an outstanding block from Skrtel after the substitute Mane was able to control a cross in the box.

And once Sturridge replaced Lallana, joining Sterling as a second striker rather than Sterling moving deeper, Liverpool finally became more threatening on the break. Liverpool shots in the 62 minutes before Sturridge came on: 1. Liverpool shots after Sturridge came on: 5. Granted, most weren't great shots, and too many moves broke down in the final third, but at least Liverpool were marginally threatening. And they threatened without any regression at the other end of the pitch.

Still, it took a mistake from Southampton for Liverpool to seal the match. Moreno's pressing led to Liverpool reclaiming possession in the final third, and he broke into the box after receiving the return ball from Sterling. His low cross wasn't good – behind Sturridge, ahead of Sterling – but Targett slipped on the slick pitch while trying to clear, a perfect set-up for the on-rushing Sterling, his shot deflected by Fonte past Forster.

That was the hammer blow. Sure, 15 minutes is more than enough time for Liverpool to throw away two goals, but that might well be the old Liverpool. Southampton's lone fright came from Tadic's set play, somehow through Liverpool's wall but incredibly well-held by Mignolet given the conditions. Sturridge probably should have added even more undeserved gloss, putting two shots straight at Forster, a third on-target but deflected behind by a Southampton defender.

So, yeah. Wow. It may not have been the best performance (hint: it wasn't, even considering how well Liverpool defended in the second half and the quality of the opening goal) but it's without a doubt Liverpool's best result of the season.

Liverpool were assuredly lucky. But Liverpool also made its own luck.

Liverpool's unfamiliar defense should have conceded at least once from the spot, but Liverpool's unfamiliar defense improved as the match went on, and kept Liverpool's fifth clean sheet in the last five away league matches, the last away league goal coming at United on December 14. Which is a ming-boggling statistic. Similar credit goes to Liverpool's midfield, providing strong protection at the back aside from Allen's should-have-been-a-penalty and Southampton's slice-and-dice chance wasted by Pelle on the hour mark. Incidentally, Henderson and Allen have been Liverpool's only fit central midfielders for the last three matches.

Rodgers responded well to Southampton's first half threats, adjusting the defensive line after halftime while bringing on Moreno for Markovic. The other two substitutions – Sturridge for Lallana and Johnson (!!!) for Ibe – also improved the overall play.

Southampton hadn't conceded twice in a league match since December 8, a 10-match streak prior to today. And that happened with Liverpool taking just six shots, tying their low in the league this season. That's the sort of conversion rate that's been sorely lacking from Liverpool's performances of late.

And all that happened after a difficult Europa League fixture on Thursday. Everton and Tottenham, both lucky to draw at home against Leicester and West Ham respectively, will tell you how difficult it is to perform at a high level after a Europa League match.

And now, Liverpool are just a point behind Southampton, two points behind fourth, and three points behind third, with 12 matches to play. That's unbelievable considering where the side was just three months ago. 21 points from a potential 48 to start the season, 24 points from a potential 30 since, after the switch to 3-4-2-1.

They admittedly haven't been the most difficult fixtures, at least until the last two, but now Liverpool have beaten their two closest competitors in the race for fourth in consecutive weeks. Battling victories, victories that admittedly had a bit of luck, but victories that Liverpool also earned. A side that's clearly believes in itself after this impressive run.

There's obviously quite a long way to go, but it's been a very good week for the club.

21 February 2015

Liverpool at Southampton 02.21.15

11:15am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.17.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.01.14
0-1 Southampton (h) 09.21.13
1-3 Southampton (a) 03.16.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Besiktas (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 3-2 Tottenham (h)
Southampton: 0-0 West Ham (h); 1-0 QPR (a); 0-1 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 6; Sterling 5; Lallana, Own Goal 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Markovic, Moreno, Sturridge 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Southampton: Pelle 8; Mane 5; Schneiderlin, Tadic, Wanyama 3; Bertrand, Clyne, Cork, Elia, Long 2; Alderweireld, Yoshida 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Ibe Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Sterling

All of a sudden, Liverpool have some options.

Not in midfield, of course, with Gerrard and Lucas still absent, but this is the first time in a long time that all of Liverpool's attackers have been available. Liverpool will have to pick three from Sturridge, Balotelli, Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana, and Markovic. while either Markovic or Ibe could start at right wing-back.

Both Coutinho and Lallana underwhelmed on Thursday. Combined, they created just one chance – Coutinho's corner for Henderson in the 43rd minute – and both ended up subbed off, for Balotelli and Sterling respectively. Coutinho's looked off the pace for a few matches now, and my layman's view is that he's showing the fatigue from starting all 18 games in the last 67 days.

You'd expect that Sterling, fit again and after a substitute appearance against Besiktas, would come back into the XI. I'd be amazed if Liverpool went with the lineup that ended Thursday's match, if both Balotelli and Sturridge started, with Liverpool again keeping Balotelli in reserve if needed off the bench.

So the suspicion is that it's Lallana or Coutinho, with Sturridge up front, Sterling as the other attacking midfielder, Ibe again at wing-back, having proven his worth against Everton, Tottenham, and Besiktas, with both Balotelli and Markovic available as substitutes if needed.

There's also the small matter of Lallana's return to St Mary's, but Rodgers has rarely been one for sentiment (at least when Gerrard isn't involved). Guessing Lallana in the above XI has much more to do with Coutinho's apparent fatigue than sentiment. But if sentiment reigns supreme, there could be a place for both Lallana and Lovren, with Can replacing Allen in midfield – something we've often seen after substitutions, but never from the start.

It's nice to have options.

Southampton's injury issues are easing as well. Alderweireld will be out for another week or two, Jay Rodriguez and Mayuka remain long-term absentees, but Schneiderlin and Shane Long should both be available tomorrow. And if both are available, you'd expect both to feature.

Long will probably be used off the bench, although with Pelle struggling for goals, he's definitely an option. But otherwise, I'd expect the same XI which drew 0-0 against West Ham but with Schneiderlin involved. Forster; Clyne, Fonte, Gardos, Yoshida; Wanyama, Schneiderlin; Mane, Davis, Elia; Pelle. Tadic could also replace Davis in the #10 role, but I suspect Southampton will play it safer at the start before bringing on Tadic as a substitute; Ward-Prowse seems more of an option than Tadic, at least at the start.

Southampton's main weakness is at left-back. Ryan Bertrand is suspended for one more match after his red card against Swansea three weeks ago. Yoshida started there against West Ham, 19-year-old Matt Targett played at QPR before going off with concussion. Targett may be available tomorrow, and unlike Yoshida, left-back is at least his preferred position, but it'd still be just his fifth league appearance (two previous starts). Whether it's Ibe or Markovic at right wing-back, they'll simply have to put the stand-in left back under pressure early and often.

It's somewhat a resistible object versus an immovable force at both ends of the pitch. I've written and you've read more than enough about Liverpool's struggles in front of goal, but it's at least been coupled with vast improvement in defense.

Southampton are in a similar situation. They've scored just once in their last three matches: a solitary strike at QPR, bracketed by scoreless matches at home against Swansea and West Ham. They've averaged just a goal per game over the last seven matches. But those seven matches include a 1-1 draw against Chelsea on December 28, a 2-0 win over Arsenal on New Years' Day, and a 1-0 win at United on January 11. They've only averaged a goal per game since December 28, but they've conceded just three league goals during that stretch. Three. In total. They remain, without a doubt, the best defense in the division.

There will be 12 matches after this one, but few if any will be more important to the Top 4 race. Southampton currently occupy fourth – although that could and probably will change after Arsenal face Palace in a few minutes – four points ahead of Liverpool. That gap could be just one, which would be fantastic, even if both United and Arsenal would remain favorites for the spots. But a four or seven point gap – with United, Arsenal, and Tottenham still ahead of Liverpool – would be incredibly difficult to overcome.

It certainly doesn't help that Liverpool have played two matches – with little rotation – since Southampton last played one. But it does help that Liverpool won both of those matches – a late victory and a comeback victory – with Liverpool winning five of its last six, unbeaten in 90 minutes since December 14.

These are the matches which define a season. And the matches which we watch football for.

20 February 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Besiktas

Previous Match Infographics: Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

Match data from Who Scored, as StatsZone doesn't cover the Europa League. Which means no Passing Network because StatsZone is the only service which carries pass combinations (you can still find the players' average position at ESPN FC though).

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

Typical Liverpool. For better and worse.

Even with Sturridge back, Liverpool are still fairly terrible in front of goal. Liverpool's first shot on-target inside the box came in the fourth minute, Liverpool's first shot of the match: Sturridge's point-blank, no-angle effort. Liverpool's second shot on-target inside the box was Balotelli's penalty in the 85th minute. In between? Five off-target – Lallana's sitter, Moreno's mis-hit volley, set play chances from Henderson, Skrtel, and Lovren – and a sixth which was blocked. That's horrific accuracy despite getting into some decent positions.

And, as has happened more than a few times, that combined with Besiktas' well-marshalled, deep defense forced Liverpool into a lot of shots from outside the box. Moreno's broken-clock's-still-right-twice-a-day effort from 35+ yards was brilliant, Balotelli and Sturridge at least put free kicks on-target, but that was the entirety of Liverpool's threat from outside the area, as Besiktas did well to close down Liverpool's chances from distance, especially in the first half.

All together, Liverpool put just five of its 18 shots on-target – 27.7% accuracy – with five blocked and eight off-target. Yikes.

At the same time, Liverpool remained very good at the back, especially in open play, despite a couple of missteps (and one Opta-defined error) from Emre Can. Besiktas got next to no joy from open play except for Ba's lone chance on the break in the 35th minute. Besiktas' two other remotely decent chances both came from set plays: Kavlak and Gülüm's first half chances from corners, both off-target. Besiktas, like Everton a couple of weeks ago, came to defend rather than attack – which isn't at all surprisingly in a first leg away leg of European competition – but Liverpool still did fairly well to plug most potential holes.

It was Liverpool's seventh clean sheet in the 18 matches since switching to 3-4-2-1. Liverpool kept just four clean sheets in the 23 matches prior.

But Simon Mignolet only had one save to make, which is a credit to Liverpool's defense (and midfield) but also symptomatic of how Besiktas approached the match. Still, Mignolet made it flawlessly, that fast break opportunity with Ba through on goal, with flashbacks of last April's match against Chelsea almost certainly foremost in his mind.

And the match would have ended like that Everton match a couple of a weeks ago if not for Mario Balotelli's late penalty after Ibe's furious run into the box. Special mention need be made of Ibe's performance, man of the match by almost every account. His 11 successful dribbles (including the one just prior to winning the penalty) were only one fewer than Besiktas had in total, and only Jordan Henderson created more chances than Ibe yesterday. His end product could have been even better, most notably failing with two crosses when in an excellent position, but it was another heady performance for a 19-year-old in his first European appearance, in just his fifth start for Liverpool.

More importantly, that was the seventh goal that Liverpool has scored after the 80th minute in cup competition this season: two in the home win against Ludogorets, two to beat Swansea in the league cup, two to beat Bolton in the FA Cup, and yesterday's 85th-minute penalty. Four matches that Liverpool have won at the death, after at least 80 minutes of frustration in each. It's not 2000-01, or even 2011-12, but Liverpool are turning into a reasonably competent cup side, a sign of their determination and increased confidence.

And Mario Balotelli is responsible for three of those late goals, and it's certainly worth mentioning his winner against Tottenham last week while we're on the subject. He's only scored four goals this season, but he's scored in four of the five competitions Liverpool are in this season, only needing an FA Cup goal to complete the set. It's probably no coincidence he's looked a much improved player with Sturridge back in the fold.

Not for the first time this season, Liverpool weren't at their best. But, not for the first time this season (especially during the last two-month stretch), Liverpool were still good enough. Liverpool were reasonably stingy at the back, Liverpool were resilient, and Liverpool kept pushing until finally making the needed breakthrough, even if it would have saved us a lot of agita had they made that breakthrough earlier.

This tie is still very much in the balance, taking a very narrow lead to a very tough ground, and there's still a lot of improvement that can be made, that needs to be made. But you can't ignore the improvement that's already evident.

18 February 2015

Liverpool v Besiktas 02.19.14

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2 (or Fox Sports Go and Fox Soccer 2 Go apps)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Palace (a); 3-2 Spurs (h); 0-0 Everton (a)
Besiktas: 3-2 Bursaspor (h); 0-1 Kayserispor (a); 2-1 Rizespor (a)

Previous European matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Basel (h); 2-2 Ludogorets (a); 0-1 Real (a); 0-3 Real (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Besiktas: 1-0 Spurs (h); 2-2 Asteras (a); 2-1 Partizan (h); 4-0 Partizan (a); 1-1 Spurs (a); 1-1 Asteras (h); 0-1 Arsenal (a); 0-0 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 2; Balotelli, Henderson, Lambert 1
Besiktas: Ba 5; Töre 3; Kavlak, Özyakup, Tosun 1

Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL)

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Ibe Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Coutinho

It's probably safe to assume that despite a massive, massive league match in the race for a Champions League place on Sunday, Liverpool will start a full-strength XI. Which means there are only a few possible changes from the side we saw at Crystal Palace.

With Markovic suspended for the next four (!!!) European matches, the midfield and defense seem fairly certain. Can, Skrtel, Sakho. Ibe, Henderson, Allen, and Moreno. Gerrard's still out and I assume Rodgers still sees no reason to shift Can into midfield and bring Lovren or Johnson into the side.

The front three is less predictable. Is Sterling fit after missing the last two matches? Does Coutinho need a rest after starting every match since December 9 – 17 matches in 63 days? That's a lot. And it's shown in the last few difficult fixtures against Everton, Tottenham, and Palace.

Still, if I had to guess, I'd assume Sterling will be used as a substitute, if at all – one of the few saved for Southampton – with the same front three we saw at Palace. I guess there's a small chance of Sturridge and Balotelli paired up front, with either Lallana or Coutinho in behind, as we saw in the second half of Saturday's match, but I suspect that'll also be a "break glass in case of emergency" situation. Or Lallana could play as the right wing-back, as he did after substitutions against West Ham and Palace. But, again, I'd be surprised. Rodgers rarely springs surprises, at least not when Liverpool are in a decent vein of form.

Often the third of the three big clubs in Turkey, Besiktas are currently top of the Super Lig, a single point ahead of Fenerbahce and two ahead of Galatasaray.

In lieu of attempting to preview a team I've seen all of twice this season, I'll direct you to this excellent write-up from Bass Tuned to Red. The short version: underwhelming statistics, but strong at both ends, converting more chances and conceding fewer goals than you'd expect. Which suggests we'll see a very cagey first leg.

Besitkas almost always play some variant of 4-3-3: usually 4-2-3-1, sometimes 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1. I wouldn't be surprised to see the more defensive 4-1-4-1, an XI something like Gonen; Kurtulus, Franco, Gülüm, Ramon; Kavlak; Töre, Hutchinson, Sosa, Sahan; Ba. Out-and-out defensive midfielder Uysai is also an option, most likely in place of Canadian Atiba Hutchinson. Gonen is Besiktas' back-up keeper, with club captain Zengin out injured, but its not as if Gonen – 26-years-old, with 10 appearances this season and two caps for the Turkish national team – is inexperienced.

Besiktas have a few players you've heard of. We'll mention and then quickly move on from Demba Ba, for fear of provoking traumatic memories and/or bad trip acid flashbacks. As Bass Tuned to Red wrote, Jose Sosa – formerly of Atletico Madrid, among others – is also an important player, their version of Coutinho. More specifically, last season's Coutinho: the most advanced in a midfield three, the primary chance creator and assist maker. You'll also probably remember attacking midfielder Kerim Frei from Fulham, most often used as a substitute (as he was in his two previous appearances against Liverpool). And then there's Besiktas' manager, Slaven Bilic: former Everton and West Ham player, Croatian manager, and all-around enjoyable character.

With the first leg at Anfield, it's imperative that Liverpool perform well tomorrow, to have something to take to Turkey in a week's time. A side that's as defensively strong as Besiktas isn't going to give you much opportunity in Istanbul, so Liverpool needs to make its own opportunities on its own ground.

At the same time, two-legged ties are rarely won in the first leg, but they sure as hell can be lost. Liverpool have to strike a balance between taking the game to Besiktas and not leaving themselves open at the back, not doing anything stupid. But this season's been all about finding a balance, and Liverpool seem closer than ever to doing so.

14 February 2015

Liverpool 2-1 Crystal Palace

Campbell 15'
Sturridge 49'
Lallana 58'

The first half could not have been more infuriating.

It was the same old trauma at Selhurst Park: dominating possession but utter frustration in the final third. A moment of insanity from Martin Skrtel on an aimless long ball allowing Gayle a shot and then Campbell the easy rebound, Crystal Palace scoring from Crystal Palace's first attack.

And Palace easily soaking up Liverpool's response: 17 first half shots, but just four on-target. Eight were blocked. Nine of 17 came from outside the box, and only two of the eight inside the box were on-target: Lallana and Coutinho's efforts which were admittedly well saved. And a referee bound and determined to keep little Palace in the competition, highlighted by a remarkable non-decision for a blatant penalty on Sturridge.

The second half could not have been any different from the first.

An excellent start to proceedings, prompted by Rodgers' change in tactics, bringing on Balotelli for Markovic and shifting to a 3-5-2 with Lallana at right wing-back. Liverpool scoring twice within 15 minutes, from Liverpool's first two chances of the half. The first came from sustained possession, Allen's pass to Henderson, Henderson's chip over the back-line, Sturridge's unerring finish. The second came from Balotelli's free kick (which Balotelli won); Speroni's saved Balotelli's effort, but Lallana was quickest to the rebound.

And from there, Liverpool absolutely controlled the match – controlling the ball, the tempo, the tenor – continuing to monopolize possession but without allowing counter-attacks. Not necessarily needing to attack anymore, Liverpool didn't push too hard, didn't turn the ball over unnecessarily, taking just two shots in the 30+ minutes after the second goal. It was Joe Allen's time to shine; he wasn't Liverpool's best player, but he does exactly what Liverpool needed in that situation – keep possession, keep it simple, spread play to the open man, lather, rinse, and repeat.

A double change with 12 minutes left consolidated Liverpool's stranglehold, Lambert and Lovren replacing Sturridge and Coutinho, giving Liverpool even more protection at the back, an outlet for long balls upfield, and allowing Liverpool's two key attackers a slight bit of rest prior to Besiktas on Thursday. The only frightening moments in the final few minutes came from unnecessary fouls conceded by Can and Skrtel, both fairly soft, but both came to nothing.

Which is a handy segue into complimenting Liverpool's goalkeeper. Simon Mignolet's long interview in the Independent today was timely. Crystal Palace had 10 corners and six or seven free kicks in Liverpool's half. Liverpool dealt with all of them fairly competently, and Mignolet was central to it; it seemed as if he punched all of them clear. There was little he could do about the goal conceded, and actually did well to save Gayle's initial effort. And added two other spectacular saves, both on Gayle shots, in the 41st and 51st minutes. It's probably a very different match if Palace take a 2-0 or 2-1 lead.

In the third round, Liverpool won 2-1 at Wimbledon after conceding a soft equalizer. In the fourth round replay, Liverpool won 2-1 at Bolton after conceding a stupid penalty for the opener. And in the fifth round, Liverpool won 2-1 at Crystal Palace, a ground that's haunted them in the last two visits.

Despite my natural pessimism, it felt as if Liverpool should, could, and would win all three of those matches, despite the setbacks. And they did. This team is still not perfect, still fairly far from perfect, but it has confidence, even arrogance, in its assumption that it'll come good. That's no small matter.

And it's very much a landmark change from where Liverpool were on this ground three months ago.

13 February 2015

Liverpool at Crystal Palace 02.14.15

12:30pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports Plus or Fox Soccer 2Go (*shakes fist at Fox Sports' scheduling department*)

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Palace (a) 09.23.14
3-3 (a) 05.05.14
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.05.13
1-2 Palace (a; League Cup) 10.25.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Spurs (h); 0-0 Everton (a); 2-1 Bolton (a)
Palace: 1-1 Newcastle (h); 1-0 Leicester (a); 0-1 Everton (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Palace: 3-2 Southampton (a); 4-0 Dover (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 10; Sterling 9; Lallana 4; Balotelli, Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Markovic 3; Moreno, Sturridge 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Suso 1
Palace: Gayle 10; Jedinak 5; Campbell 4; Chamakh, Dann, Puncheon 3; Hangeland, Ledley 2; Bolasie, Doyle, Kaikai, McArthur, Sanogo, Zaha 1

Referee: Robert Madley

Madley has never been in charge of a Liverpool game before.

Guess at a line-up:
Lovren Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Can Henderson Enrique
Sturridge Balotelli

As always, the conflict is between Liverpool's need to rest players and Rodgers' desire to compete on all fronts.

Personally, I think this competition is the lowest on the food chain. The league will almost always be the most important, while the Europa League is a potential route into next season's Champions League (even if winning the competition remains an incredibly difficult proposition). But Rodgers rarely approaches any match that way. A couple of changes but a stronger-than-expected XI is almost always his modus operandi in cup competition.

That said, there has to be some rotation. Gerrard and Lucas are out injured, I suspect Sterling will miss out as well as he recovers from a foot injury, and Jordon Ibe's cup-tied. Rodgers is already limited in some of his choices.

One change that everyone seemingly agrees on is shifting Can in midfield, as we saw at the end of Saturday's match (and at Bolton in the previous round). Liverpool immediately looked more dynamic, with surprisingly little loss of solidity at the back with Lovren on the right of defense. I've no preference whether Can's partnered with Allen or Henderson, although I suspect it'll be the vice-captain, simply because he's vice-captain, even though he too could probably use the rest.

There's also the option of switching one or both of the wing backs. Not both, given how that spectacularly failed in the first match against Bolton. But either replacing Moreno with Enrique, or bringing Johnson or Manquillo on the right is a possibility. And using Johnson or Manquillo on the right would free up Markovic to again start in attack.

Other possibilities: give Coutinho the night off – he looked off the pace on Saturday, and I suspect the knock suffered at Everton had something to do with it – and start both Sturridge and Balotelli, a 3-4-1-2 rather than the usual 3-4-2-1. The match at White Hart Lane, while more than five and a half months ago, was a tantalizing glimpse of what Balotelli and Sturridge can do in a strike partnership. Sturridge is getting back to full fitness, able to play 70 minutes on Saturday; Balotelli is coming off a match where he scored a vital winner. And as with Can in midfield, this is a match where Liverpool can experiment without as many repercussions as in the Premiership or Europa League.

However, Crystal Palace is in even better form than they were when they took points off of Liverpool in the last two meetings: the soul-killing draw at the end of last season, the soul-killing loss in November. Since Alan Pardew became manager at the beginning of January, Palace have won five, drawn once, and lost once. In the 22 previous matches this season, they'd won just three. Just twice in the league. Including, of course, that thrashing of Liverpool.

Pardew's Palace is deployed the same way as Pardew's Newcastle: either 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 (usually the former), fairly resilient in defense, but more importantly fast and direct in attack. Palace's likely XI is probably that which drew with Newcastle on Saturday – Speroni; Kelly, Hangeland, Delaney, Ward; McArthur, Ledley; Puncheon, Chamakh, Zaha; Sanogo. However, Pardew should be tempted to start Dwight Gayle, with three goals in those last two matches against Liverpool, whether it's in place of Puncheon, Zaha, or Sanogo. Bolasie could also start in place of one of the wingers, returning from the African Cup of Nations to set up Palace's equalizer on Saturday. Mile Jedinak looks likely to miss out in midfield, returning from the Asian Cup with ankle issues, while Scott Dann and Jerome Thomas are also injured.

Tomorrow won't quite be a chance for revenge after the last two meetings – both vastly more important to Liverpool's fortunes than tomorrow will be – but it's still a chance for revenge, and a chance to mute those traumatic memories. The November loss at Palace was a turning point, this season's nadir, leading to a change in style and formation which led to the incremental improvement we've seen since. And there's no better way to reinforce that improvement than to curb stomp the team which prompted it.

11 February 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Tottenham

Previous Match Infographics: Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), 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.

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

Unfortunately, this may no longer be the Tottenham that you lovingly remember from the three previous meetings. Fortunately, Liverpool still earned the same result, but only barely.

That was an incredibly even contest, both in scoreline and statistics. Liverpool twice taking the lead, Tottenham equalizing in 11 and eight minutes respectively. A difference of five attempted passes and nine completed passes. A difference of five attempted attacking third passes and one completed attacking third pass. 16 shots to 14. Eight key passes to nine. Each side completing two of 11 crosses. Liverpool winning 14 aerial duels, Tottenham 16.

Both sides attempted and completed fewer passes than usual. Liverpool have averaged 500 passes per match this season (83.0% accuracy), Tottenham 498 (81.2%). Which isn't entirely out of the ordinary for this fixture, but it's usually just one side that's vastly below its average. I.E. Liverpool monopolizing the ball in last season's two meetings or Liverpool's low pass total due to the counter-attacking strategy in the reverse fixture last August.

But there were also a few differences: a couple of minor, a couple of major.

The minor differences: Tottenham's defensive actions and Liverpool's success with take-ons.

That Tottenham made more tackles and interceptions than Liverpool isn't surprising – Liverpool are often below their opposition in that regard – but, as expected from a Pochettino side, Tottenham put Liverpool under pressure in its own half, and cut out a fair number of final third passes.

Jordon Ibe was the difference in the dribbling statistics, completing six of eight, just three fewer successful dribbles than the entire Tottenham side. And while he didn't get credit for it statistically, it was Ibe's run – taking on two defenders – and pass to Lallana which set up Liverpool's third goal. I'll take this opportunity to remind that was his third start in the Premier League and he's still just 19.

The major differences: what Liverpool did with its shots and Tottenham's defensive errors.

Liverpool put 44% of its shots on-target, seven of 16, the highest percentage since the 4-1 win over Swansea. Tottenham put five of their 14 shots on goal, 35.7%.

Eight of Liverpool's 16 shots came in the Danger Zone (six-yard box + center of the 18-yard box). That's the second highest proportion this season, behind the away match against Villa, where eight of Liverpool's 12 shots (and both goals) came in the Danger Zone. Prior to yesterday's match, 36.1% of all Liverpool shots in the league came in that area. It's also where 29 of Liverpool's 36 league goals (including own goals and penalties) came from. Danger Zone shots are really, really important. Meanwhile, only three of Tottenham's 14 shots came in that area, including both goals.

And Liverpool scored three goals, for the first time since beating Swansea 4-1 on December 29th. Liverpool have only done that three times in the league this season: yesterday, against Swansea, and at QPR. At this point last season, they'd scored three or more in 12 of 25 matches.

Tottenham made three Opta-defined errors yesterday: Bentaleb and Mason's back passes in the 8th and 19th minutes, which Liverpool were unable to take advantage of, and Dier failing to stop Lallana's cross for Balotelli's goal. And that doesn't even count Rose's errant tackle for the penalty. Meanwhile, Liverpool committed none. Not counting penalties for Guðjohnsen and Hazard in cup competition, Liverpool's last Opta-defined defensive error came against AFC Wimbledon, on January 5th. Which was 10 matches ago. After Liverpool's 1-3 loss at Palace, the 12th match of the season, Liverpool had committed 17 defensive errors, averaging nearly 1.5 per match. Liverpool have committed just four defensive errors in the 13 league matches, none since the 4-1 win over Swansea.

Liverpool's voodoo over Tottenham notwithstanding, that was almost certainly Liverpool's most impressive win of the season. It's probably Liverpool's first win over a first-class side this season; you can't call the Tottenham which Liverpool beat an August "first-class" in any sense of the phrase. This is a Tottenham side in excellent form, coming off a win over their closest rivals, and with much more recent experience winning close matches at the death.

Liverpool got crucial contributions from unexpected sources: the aforementioned Ibe, Balotelli's game-winning goal (that's the exact run he needs to be making more often), an absolutely brilliant save from Mignolet with the match at 2-1, Markovic in more of an advanced position (playing more like a second striker than Coutinho, Lallana, or Gerrard have in the position and scoring the opener), Lovren off the bench to allow Can to shift into midfield.

Both of Liverpool's goals conceded were regrettable: the first because of the ease Lamela and Eriksen passed around Henderson and Gerrard followed up by Sakho's slip, the second because of Dowd giving a free kick that shouldn't have been a free kick and the linesman failing to flag Kane offside. But neither makes me worry about regression to the defensive woes from earlier this season; it's still seems a much improved and even (*deep breaths*) very good defensive unit. Even bringing Lovren on couldn't help Tottenham find the needed third.

But there's still a lot of room for improvement: in Liverpool's finishing (especially the rusty Sturridge), in attacking third cohesion, in midfield organization without Lucas, and, yes, in defense. And Liverpool will need to continue improving, with two matches a week for the next three weeks (at the least), including massive contests against Besiktas, (a rested) Southampton, and Manchester City.

09 February 2015

Liverpool v Tottenham 02.10.15

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 08.31.14
4-0 Liverpool (h) 03.30.14
5-0 Liverpool (a) 12.14.13
3-2 Liverpool (h) 03.10.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Everton (a); 2-1 Bolton (a); 2-0 West Ham (h)
Tottenham: 2-1 Arsenal (h); 3-0 West Brom (a); 2-2 Sheffield Utd (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 5; Lallana, Own Goal 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Moreno, Sturridge 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Markovic, Skrtel 1
Tottenham: Kane 12; Eriksen 9; Chadli 7; Adebayor, Dier 2; Lamela, Rose, Soldado, Vertonghen 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Ibe Henderson Allen Moreno
Sterling Coutinho

Well, that was a less-than-successful derby on the injury front.

We've learned that Lucas will be out for 'a little bit of time,' rumored to be around a month. Which is bad news. Not counting Saturday, Lucas had started in 12 league matches, with Liverpool averaging 2.25 points per match. And in the 11 he didn't start, Liverpool averaged 1.0 points per match.

I'm tempted to think that Liverpool's midfield would be better with Emre Can rather than Allen in place of Lucas, but after the last 10 or so matches, I'm certain that Liverpool's defense is better with Emre Can. Maybe Lovren or Johnson come into the side, with Can moving into midfield, but why take the risk? The defense has been excellent. And Allen, who's barely featured over the last two months, should improve with increased game time.

At least it appears that both Coutinho and Sterling will be available. Would it be better for the players to miss out tomorrow, giving them more time to recuperate from their respective knocks? Obviously. But can Liverpool afford to do so and still win? That I'm much less sure about.

There are also concerns about the availability of Lallana and Markovic, the former left out of the squad at Everton, the latter left on the bench. If fit, Lallana could start instead of Sterling or Coutinho (or Sturridge, if he's still not ready to start). Gerrard's coming off of consecutive 90-minute appearances in the last six days and is obviously going to start in the Steven Gerrard Retirement Tour Cup FA Cup on Saturday, so he can't plausibly feature tomorrow as well. Markovic could also reclaim his place ahead of Ibe. I doubt Liverpool will start both – whether with Markovic or Ibe as one of the attackers, or with Markovic used in place of Moreno on the left – with one needed as a viable attacking option off the bench. Since none of Liverpool's strikers aside from Sturridge appear to be a viable attacking option off the bench.

Finally, I hope that after three substitute appearances, Sturridge will finally be available from the start. It'd be fitting if Sturridge made his first start since returning injury tomorrow, as his last start came at Tottenham just over five months ago. It's the circle of life.

Liverpool have thoroughly enjoyed their last four matches against Tottenham, but this will be a very different fixture. Tottenham are in excellent form, with just one league loss since December 10, an even longer streak than Liverpool's while also picking up more points because of their ability to win rather than draw. It's truly become Pochettino's team: incredibly fit and incredibly tough to beat. Five of Tottenham's last seven league wins have been 2-1 victories. And none of those opposition goals have been consolations, either taking the lead or drawing level only to still lose; three of those five victories came with winning goals after the 85th minute. This team doesn't know when it's beaten. That's not the Tottenham I know.

Partly thanks to that incredible fitness, Tottenham have no current injuries despite a similarly packed fixture list as Liverpool. They'll be able to start Pochettino's strongest XI. It'll be 4-2-3-1, and my best guess is Lloris; Walker, Dier, Vertonghen, Rose; Bentaleb, Mason; Lamela, Dembele, Eriksen; Kane; the same XI which started against Arsenal. Fazio or Chiriches could come into defense instead of Dier. Chadli could be preferred to Dembele or Lamela, the former allowing Eriksen to play in a central role. Personally, I'd play Chadli rather than Lamela, if only for his aerial ability on set plays, which remains Liverpool's main defensive weakness. Or Pochettino could prefer Townsend's out-and-out pace. Stupid plethora of options which Liverpool doesn't have.

Like Liverpool, they're a very young team: Kane's 21, Eriksen's 22, Lamela's 22, Bentaleb's 20 and Mason's 23. It's safe to assume that they'll only continue to get better. Kane's the man of the moment, with two goals against both Arsenal and West Brom in his last two games, and seven goals since the start of the New Year, but Eriksen has been just as important to Tottenham's success, both from open play and set plays. Aside from possibly the league cup match at Chelsea, this will be the sternest test of Liverpool's revamped defense.

One cause for optimism is that Tottenham have kept just two clean sheets in their last nine league matches: a 0-0 draw against United six weeks ago and the 3-0 win at West Brom 10 days ago. They rarely concede more than one, but at least they usually concede. But this is Liverpool we're talking about.

Regardless of the fact that this is a different Tottenham team than in previous meetings, you suspect Liverpool will approach the match the same way. Look to blitz Tottenham from the off, hope to score the early goal which will reprise memories of the last three meetings even if Tottenham's become a more resilient side, and then settle into a counter-attacking routine, soaking up pressure with the improved defense and quickly transitioning into speedy attacks against a sometimes vulnerable opposition.

But that's much easier said than done.

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), 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.

Saturday was the third time in the last five matches where Liverpool failed to score – 0-0 v Bolton, 0-1 at Chelsea, 0-0 at Everton – bracketing 2-0 and 2-1 wins against West Ham and at Bolton. 24 shots v Bolton, 16 shots at Chelsea, 17 shots at Everton. 57 shots in total: 19 on-target, 19 off-target, and 19 blocked. Exactly 33.3% accuracy, which is almost exactly Liverpool's season-long total. Zero goals. Liverpool have scored all of eight goals in the last eight matches in all competitions.

That's pretty much the alpha and omega of Liverpool's results over the last month. Unbeaten in 90 minutes, the only loss after extra time at Chelsea, since December 14th, but five wins and three draws in the eight league matches since. Liverpool needs wins, not draws, to make up ground on the Champions League places. It's become tiresome writing the same thing every week, and I'm sure you're tired of reading the same thing every week, but Liverpool's attack is the only remaining hindrance from this becoming a very, very good team.

Because Liverpool have also only conceded three goals in those last eight matches. Which is beyond remarkable, especially considering how this team started the season. There's little to add to the post from last week about how Liverpool haven't conceded an open play goal since New Year's Day, except that streak's now up to 870 minutes. It's not as if Everton took the game to Liverpool in the slightest bit, but the home side were allowed just three open play shots in the entire match: two speculative efforts in the first 20 minutes from outside the box, blocked and off-target, and Coleman's outstanding chance in 86th minute, wonderfully saved by Mignolet.

In the 2013-14 Goodison derby, Everton took 18 shots and scored three goals. In the 2012-13 Goodison derby, Everton took 16 shots and scored two goals. In the 2011-12 Goodison derby, Everton took 12 shots but failed to score. In the 2010-11 Goodison derby, Everton took 13 shots and scored two goals. I don't have stats for earlier matches, but I suspect it's been quite some time since Everton took fewer than six shots in a home Merseyside derby, which says quite a bit about both Liverpool's defense and Everton's ambition.

Everton did press Liverpool well, with 10 of 26 tackles and three of 12 interceptions in Liverpool's half, with far too many passes between the center-backs, wing-backs, and central midfielders rather than played forward. Liverpool desperately missed Lucas' steadying presence in midfield after suffering a thigh injury that'll supposedly keep him out for around a month.

Also, compare Henderson's average position on Saturday to that against West Ham, Villa, or Sunderland, with Liverpool needing the extra defensive help (despite Everton's lack of attack) and needing to balance Allen's forays forward. Henderson had averaged two shots and two chances created in those three matches; he took just one shot yesterday, from distance and immediately blocked.

And after the 56th minute, Liverpool desperately missed Coutinho in attack, forced off with a knee problem after a rough tackle from Besic in the first half. Michael Caley's Expected Goals chart says it all. As does the fact that Coutinho remained Liverpool's most creative player, with five key passes, despite going off before the hour mark. Bringing Sturridge on is all well and good, but someone needs to supply him, taking just one shot in his 34 minutes on the pitch. He was Liverpool's most creative player after coming on, setting up Lambert's blocked shot and Gerrard's side-foot wide. That's not where Liverpool wants Sturridge playing.

You can't legislate for injuries, but you can expect them, especially given Liverpool's packed fixture list over the last month or so. Which is why, in retrospect, playing Coutinho, Sterling, Gerrard, etc for 90 minutes at Bolton just three days earlier seems so maddening.

But you have to deal with what comes. The FA Cup is clearly important to Liverpool. And tomorrow's match against Tottenham is even more important to Liverpool's quest for fourth than Saturday was. If taking off Coutinho and then Sterling, if resting Lallana and Markovic, helps Liverpool achieve victory tomorrow, it might all be worth it.

07 February 2015

Liverpool 0-0 Everton

0-0 at Goodison was unexpected. The last time this fixture ended scoreless was April 2000, 17 Goodison derbies ago. The Anfield derbies tend to be more closely contested, these tend to be vastly more open, at least over the last five years. Because, you know, Everton usually tries to attack at home.

Credit where due and all that. Everton's front three pressed well, upsetting Liverpool's attacks at the base, especially after Lucas went off. And Everton defended in depth, blocking seven of Liverpool's 17 shots, making 29 defensive third clearances. But it was still strange to see Everton play for the 0-0. And they got that 0-0, a result that's far more damaging to Liverpool than Everton.

Injuries made a massive difference to Liverpool. Sturridge wasn't fit enough to start. Neither were Lallana nor Markovic, the former left out entirely, the latter on the bench and replaced by Ibe in the XI. Lucas had to go off after 16 minutes, replaced by Joe Allen – which made it easier for Everton to press Liverpool's midfield and defense, Liverpool missing his positioning, short passing, and ability on the ball far more than his defense. And Coutinho, struggling with a knee problem thanks to one of Everton's many "agricultural" tackles, made way for Sturridge in the 56th, Liverpool finally bringing on its goalscorer but removing its best creator. Michael Caley's Expected Goals chart adequately summarizes the difference that made.

Narratives made a massive difference to Liverpool. You cannot play with passengers in a Merseyside Derby and, as much as it hurts to write, Steven Gerrard was a passenger for long stretches. Yes, he also had two of Liverpool's best chances: a goal-bound acrobatic effort deflected over by Naismith in the 54th and a side-footed shot narrowly wide in the 88th. Otherwise, he did little, slowing down Liverpool attacks and creating just one chance. Liverpool didn't even get the benefit of his set play delivery, wasting the few opportunities he had. He's the best player I've ever seen in a Liverpool shirt, but Liverpool are simply a better side without Gerrard these days. Especially a Steven Gerrard who played 90 minutes just three days ago. Haven't we learned that you play Gerrard in one match a week, not two? Please? And there's no explanation for bringing Rickie Lambert on as the final substitute – for Sterling no less – other than "sentiment." There's no room for sentiment in football. This was a crucial match in Liverpool's quest for fourth place, not a testimonial.

Liverpool took 17 shots, dominated possession, but you can tear through the concrete opportunities in a single line: Ibe's cannon off the post in the 27th minute, the two aforementioned Gerrard efforts, a close-range chance for Sturridge somehow blocked by Jagielka in the 70th. Everton's single line is even shorter: an 87th minute chance for Coleman miraculously saved by Mignolet.

At least Liverpool's defense is light years better than it was the last time these two sides met. Sure, Everton didn't really try to attack – I've never seen Everton so hesitant to attack in a Goodison derby – and they didn't register their first shot on target until that 87th-minute effort. But an awful lot of credit goes to how Can, Skrtel, and Sakho dealt with Lukaku, Naismith, and Mirallas as well.

It's now been 870 minutes since Liverpool last conceded an open play goal in any competition. And it's been 390 minutes since Liverpool last conceded any type of goal in the Premier League. That remains impressive, no matter the opposition. The previous long without conceding under Rodgers was 272 minutes, at the start of last season. The last time Liverpool kept four consecutive league clean sheets was January-February 2011, the beginning of Dalglish's caretaker stint, against Wolves, Fulham, Stoke, and Chelsea.

That's impressive, and it's because of both Everton's desired tactics and Liverpool's defending.

But it led to a fairly unwatchable match, especially in the second half, where neither side did much of anything going forward. And while we can be pleased with more evidence of Liverpool's defensive improvement, and especially pleased with Ibe and Can's efforts on Liverpool's right, we're yet again ruing Liverpool's impotence in the final third. Stop me if you've heard that one before.

Impotence that has, yet again, made Liverpool's quest for fourth that much more difficult.