29 April 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Hull City

Previous Match Infographics: West Brom (a), Newcastle (h), Blackburn [FA Cup] (a), Arsenal (a), Manchester United (h), Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h), Besiktas (a), 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)

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.)

It was Saturday all over again, except Hull watched Liverpool on Saturday and figured out where the weaknesses were – Emre Can a right-back in name only and set plays (as usual) – and targeted those areas. And Hull scored.

And, once again, Liverpool did not.

I'd rather Brendan Rodgers had learned something from Saturday instead.

Emre Can, all of 21 years old, was signed as a midfielder. He's done best so far as a right-sided center-back in a back three. He's done well enough in midfield, as a right wing-back, and even when he played in a center-back pairing against Newcastle.

He is not, however, an orthodox right-back. Especially not when you seemingly ask him to come inside when Liverpool are in possession, playing almost as a third or fourth midfielder, leaving him well out of position when Hull counter-attacked.

Granted, Liverpool don't have a ton of options at the position with Johnson needed on the left because Moreno's injured, Manquillo and Enrique are wholly out of favor, and Flanagan's not ready to play, but that was one of the benefits of the 3-4-3: it helped hide Liverpool's current weakness at full-back rather than giving the opponent a clear area to exploit.

So it was unsurprising to see Hull target that area, especially early in the match, creating an outstanding chance in the sixth minute – Aluko's cross for N'Doye's eight-yard header straight at Mignolet – and concerted pressure just after half an hour, ultimately leading to the corner which led to the goal.

And it's no coincidence that Quinn and Brady was Hull's most frequent pass combination, by a vast margin.

If only that were Liverpool's only problem, Liverpool still might have had a chance. If only. But Liverpool also kept the same toothless formation from Saturday with Balotelli as a lone striker, and Liverpool rarely looked like scoring. Again.

This marks the second time that Liverpool have been held goalless in consecutive league matches this season, the other being 0-0 v Hull then 0-1 at Newcastle in late October/early November. Coincidentally, Liverpool played 4-3-3 with Balotelli up front in all four matches.

It's the first time that Liverpool have been held scoreless in both league matches against an opponent since the matches against West Brom in Rodgers' first season. That's the only other time it's happened under Rodgers. Even when beaten in both fixtures, Liverpool at least usually manages to tally a consolation at least once. And to be fair, it happened four times in 2011-12 – the season that's often felt most comparable to this, a season where Liverpool similarly struggled to score and did reasonably well in the cups – against Stoke, Tottenham, Swansea, and Fulham.

At least Liverpool put 75% of their shots on-target, I guess, the highest single-match shot accuracy since Rodgers became manager. Fat lot of good that it did. Coutinho's 20th minute set-play volley, and maybe Henderson's left-footed half volley were the only shots that truly tested Steve Harper.

Lost in my frequent complaints about Liverpool's usually horrific shooting is the fact that shooting accuracy clearly isn't the end-all, be-all. It is a fairly decent barometer. But you still have to take good shots. Liverpool did not. I've become far too reliant on Michael Caley's Expected Goals charts in these write-ups, but it's again useful. Despite Liverpool's high shooting accuracy, despite four on-target Danger Zone shots, Liverpool's expected return remains paltry. And Liverpool's actual return remains paltry.

To be fair, Liverpool painfully lost this fixture last season, taking just nine shots, scoring from Gerrard's free kick but conceding twice on the counter and once on an uncleared set play. And that was with Suarez as a lone striker, almost as isolated as Balotelli was yesterday. That was with Moses and Sterling as unable to do damage from the flanks as Sterling and Ibe were yesterday. That was with Gerrard and Henderson unable to add much to the attack from midfield; at least Coutinho and Henderson were Liverpool's best players yesterday, aside from maybe Mignolet.

We've often talked about learning from mistakes. That Liverpool has tried and failed in three out of four matches against Hull when playing with a lone striker against Steve Bruce's 3-5-2 is maddening. Last season's home win came solely because of two set play goals. Four matches against Hull's 3-5-2, Liverpool playing either 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3, zero open play goals.

That Liverpool struck with the same formation and almost the same XI as Saturday's pathetic performance – Allen for Gerrard the sole change – is similarly maddening. The same formation and similar personnel, I'll add, which led to losses to Villa, Newcastle, Palace, etc. back in the dismal autumn stretch. I know Rodgers has always spoken about how 4-3-3 is his preferred formation, but the retreat away from the 3-4-3 which led to a 13-match unbeaten stretch – a formation that looked so promising that even the youth sides started using it – for what we've seen since makes little sense.

At this point, I can't help but don my tin foil conspiracy theory hat. Maybe Liverpool are just doing everything they can to avoid the Europa League now that fourth place is out the question? Maybe Rodgers is trying to prove to FSG that Balotelli needs to be sold, that Liverpool needs to spend heavily on the attack next summer?

It makes as much sense as anything else we've seen over the last two matches. I think I'm joking, but I'm not entirely sure.

27 April 2015

Liverpool at Hull City 04.28.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 10.25.14
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.14
1-3 Hull (a) 12.01.13
0-0 (a) 05.09.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 West Brom (a); 1-2 Villa (n); 2-0 Newcastle (h)
Hull: 2-0 Palace (a); 0-2 Southampton (a); 1-3 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 7; Gerrard, Henderson 6; Coutinho, Lallana, Sturridge 4; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Allen, Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Hull: Jelavic 8; N'Doye 5; Diame, Hernandez 4; Chester, Elmohamady 2; Aluko, Livermore, McShane, Meyler, Ramirez 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Henderson Coutinho
Ibe Sterling Lallana

What you saw on Saturday you'll probably see again tomorrow.

Hull are going to do exactly what West Brom did. Because it worked, and because that's exactly what Hull did in the reverse fixture last October. How can Liverpool ensure a different result? Can Liverpool ensure a different result?

Given Liverpool's proclivities in the last few matches, you'd expect Rodgers to stick with the 4-3-3. You'd expect Balotelli to be left out after offering little against West Brom. You'd expect Gerrard (and Johnson, for that matter) wouldn't be available after playing 90 minutes on Saturday, but then again, it is Gerrard and all rules about form and fitness don't seem to apply. Moreno should be fit again after missing Saturday's match, but Sturridge, Sakho, and Lucas are all still out.

So the above is my best guess. Can remaining at right-back again with Moreno returning on the left. Allen replacing Gerrard in midfield, Sterling replacing Balotelli up front with Lallana coming in on the left, as he did as a substitute on Saturday. But, no, I don't think it's the best chance for a better result either.

If I had my way, I'd prefer the return to 3-4-3. I'd prefer Coutinho get another chance as false nine, which led to the only time Liverpool scored two goals in a match since March 4. I'd prefer Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Lovren; Ibe, Henderson, Allen, Moreno; Lallana, Coutinho, Sterling. But given the XIs named in the last four or five matches, I don't think that's likely.

If Rodgers really wants to stick with the 4-3-3, shift Can into midfield and Coutinho into the front three, at the expense of either Lallana or Ibe. Maybe even as the false nine again. Use Manquillo at right-back – for the first time in three months – or even (sigh) Johnson again. Something like Mignolet; Manquillo, Skrtel, Lovren, Moreno; Can, Allen, Henderson; Ibe, Coutinho, Sterling. But, again, that's not what recent XIs suggest will happen.

Like West Brom, Hull are coming off a vital 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace, which was prefaced by a losing streak which has dragged them far too close to the bottom three. Hull are in greater need of points than West Brom were, currently just one point and goal difference outside of the relegation zone. I doubt it'll change Bruce's tactics that much; Hull will be slightly more likely than West Brom to go in search of a counter-attack or set play goal, but they'll still first and foremost look to keep Liverpool from breaking through by defending as deep as possible in as great of numbers as possible.

Hull also have somewhat of an injury crisis on their hands. Diame might be fit after struggling with a recurring knee injury, but Jelavic, Davies, Snodgrass, and Robertson are out, while Meyler's suspended. All six are probable starters when available.

Despite the short turnaround after Saturday's match, I expect Bruce will keep faith with the same XI that beat Palace, the same 3-5-2 which stifled Liverpool in the reverse fixture. Harper; Chester, Dawson, McShane; Elmohamady, Livermore, Huddlestone, Quinn, Brady; N'Doye, Aluko. The only possible changes are if Diame's available from the start, most likely in place of Quinn, or if Abel Hernandez is preferred to Aluko.

So you can expect Hull to be Hull. Will Liverpool continue to be Liverpool?

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: Newcastle (h), Blackburn [FA Cup] (a), Arsenal (a), Manchester United (h). Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), 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)

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

No matter the formation, no matter the striker(s), Liverpool still struggles to score. This is news to no one.

Liverpool struggles to score when opponents press them, disjointing the defense and midfield, cutting off supply to the front players. Liverpool struggles to score when limited to the counter-attack, unable to play at a quick enough pace before defenders get into position. And Liverpool struggles to score when defenses sit deep, denying time, space, and ways into the penalty area.

The first half on Saturday was like nothing I'd ever seen before, Liverpool's worst troubles against a deep defense magnified to the nth degree. Liverpool had 79% possession – the highest in a single half since Rodgers became manager – but that possession only led to eight shots. All eight shots came from outside the box. All eight shots were either off-target or blocked. It was as if West Brom had built a wall around the 18-yard box, and all Liverpool had to break it down were squeaky plastic mallets.

Coutinho was the worst offender, with eight of his nine shots – the most he's taken in a match since joining Liverpool – coming from outside the box. One on-target, three off-target, four blocked.

Yikes. There had to be some regression to the mean after those goals against Bolton, Southampton, and Manchester City. But that total was also understandable since no one else seemed up to the task. All five of Balotelli's shots (four from outside the box) were either off-target or blocked. And Raheem Sterling failed to take a single shot, despite playing wide-left for the majority of the match, the place where he's ostensibly best able to take on his defender, cut inside, and shoot. Incidentally, Sterling was successful with just two of his eight attempted dribbles, well below his 52% success rate. Five different attackers, if you include the two substitutes. Only six shots, from just two players. None were on-target. Sigh.

In total, 15 of Liverpool's 22 shots came from outside the box. So at least Liverpool were "better" in the second half, I guess, "unlucky" not to score in either the 56th or 63rd minute.

But 15 is the most outside-the-box shots that Liverpool have taken in a match this season, and 68.2% is the highest proportion of outside-the-box shots in a match this season, slightly more than the 8 of 12 against Southampton or the 4 of 6 at Newcastle.

Liverpool have taken 22 or more shots and failed to score just four times since Rodgers became manager: against West Brom and at Reading in 2012-13, against Chelsea in that soul-killing loss last season, and Saturday's match. Four times in 109 matches.

Unsurprisingly, Saturday saw Liverpool's worst shooting accuracy in those four matches. 28% against West Brom in 2012-13 (seven of 25), 39.3% at Reading (11 of 28), 30.8% against Chelsea (eight of 26), and 22.7% yesterday (five of 22).

And you know what's really sad? 22.7% isn't anywhere near Liverpool's worst shooting accuracy in a match this season. There was the 5.6% against Villa, the 8.3% at Palace, the 18.8% against Stoke, the 13.3% against Sunderland, the 19% against Leicester, the 14.3% against United, and the 15.4% at Arsenal. Seven matches worse than yesterday's abomination. One win, two draws, and four losses, including the two losses which doomed Liverpool's hopes for fourth.

Liverpool's worst shooting accuracy in a match last season was 20%, when they took just five shots at Villa, putting the lone shot on-target in the net. A match that Liverpool won, I'll add. And that was the only match where Liverpool shot worse than 25%.

I cannot sigh hard enough.

West Brom barely tried to attack until the final few minutes but had just one fewer shot on-target than Liverpool. West Brom barely tried to attack until the final few minutes and still had almost the same Expected Goals total as Liverpool.

West Brom's 115 completed passes were also the fewest by an opponent since Rodgers became Liverpool manager. The previous low was Aston Villa's 146 in 2012-13, a match that Villa won 1-3. Liverpool's opponents have been held to fewer than 200 completed passes ten times in the last three seasons: four this season, four last season, and four in 2012-13. Liverpool's record in those matches in 4W-2D-4L, with three of those four wins coming in 2013-14, mainly thanks to goals from some guy named Luis Suarez.

Liverpool completed 64 more final third passes than West Brom completed passes in total. Liverpool took slightly more than twice as many shots, Liverpool created three times as many chances. And both sides finished with the same amount of goals. None.

Aside from that special Suarez season, Liverpool have struggled against deep defenses. This isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Allardyce, Paul Lambert, and Steve Bruce have all taken points off of Liverpool in a similar manner, but none has been a bigger bane than Tony Pulis.

That's amazing. And that's against three different Tony Pulis clubs under four different Liverpool managers.

So, yes, some of Liverpool's struggles were assuredly Pulis-related, not for the first time and probably not for the last. But it's not as if Liverpool's impotence was a new feature either.

We know what this team's issues are. They've been the same issues all season long.

25 April 2015

Liverpool 0-0 West Brom

Tony Pulis team does Tony Pulis things, Liverpool remain Liverpool.

This is what happens when an immovable object meets a completely resistible force.

Still, it's not as if Liverpool made it hard for West Brom. 4-3-3 with a very wide front three meant that Liverpool dominated possession but couldn't create a single thing inside the final third, with Sterling and Ibe doubled up and Balotelli completely isolated. Players were static in attack with at least eight West Brom defenders behind the ball and final third passes routinely went astray, with Liverpool players shouting at each other about the run or pass that should have been made.

Liverpool had 79% possession in the first half. Liverpool had no shots on-target and no shots from inside the box to show for it.

Like Hull at Anfield way back in October, West Brom made no pretense at attack. After victory at Palace last week, West Brom needed a single point to all but guarantee safety, so all West Brom did was play for that point. Which they got. Because Liverpool.

Liverpool's first shot inside the box and first shot on-target came in the same move in the 55th minute, Liverpool's best chance of scoring, pretty much Liverpool's only chance of scoring. But Balotelli's turn and shot was blocked, followed by Myhill saves on Coutinho and Henderson, then Lescott cleared before Henderson's second chance at a rebound. Seven minutes later, Ibe hit the crossbar after a nice one-two with Balotelli, the only moment where a players' pace put them in behind West Brom's defense. 30 minutes later, Lovren headed narrowly wide just before the final whistle.

And that's pretty much all Liverpool had to show for 22 shots in total, 662 passes, and 75% possession, the only moments where you had a modicum of hope that Liverpool might actually make the breakthrough. All season long, we've complained about the side's inability to score and to put shots on-target, and things are somehow getting worse, not better. Part of that admittedly has to do with there being little to play for, part has to do with injuries, but it's not as if it's an uncommon occurrence.

Brendan Rodgers' attempt to change proceedings was to replace Balotelli and Ibe with Borini and Lallana. Same formation, new disappointing pieces. And it went about as well as you'd expect. Lallana had some clever touches, Borini, um, ran around a bit, but neither could alter the tenor or tempo. West Brom, having held Liverpool at bay for 85 minutes, finished the game stronger, actually going for it with little time left on the clock, requiring an excellent near post save and then a well-punched corner from Mignolet.

I don't understand reverting to a formation which led to Liverpool's worst start to a season in 50 years. I don't understand playing Balotelli as a lone striker when it hasn't worked once this season, and I don't understand taking him off when you're brining on the other striker in the squad (even if that striker's a striker in name only). I don't understand playing Gerrard and Johnson for 90 minutes when neither will be at the club next season.

This played out like an end-of-season contest, the kind you see on the last day when both teams' position is secure. And while Liverpool's season all but ended with last week's loss at Wembley, there's still five more of these matches to slog through.

It's become a broken record, but this side has no goals in it. And as long as that's the case, we'll have a fair few matches like today's.

24 April 2015

Liverpool at West Brom 04.25.15

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.04.14
1-1 (a) 02.02.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 10.26.13
0-2 West Brom (h) 02.11.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Villa (n); 2-0 Newcastle (h); 1-0 Blackburn (a)
West Brom: 2-0 Palace (a); 2-3 Leicester (h); 1-4 QPR (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 7; Gerrard, Henderson 6; Coutinho, Lallana, Sturridge 4; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Allen, Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
West Brom: Berahino 12; Ideye 4; Gardner 3; Anichebe, Dawson, Morrison 2; Brunt, Dorrans, Fletcher, Lescott, Sessesgnon, Varela 1

Referee: Lee Mason

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

Right, there's still football to be played. I'd almost forgotten.

It sure felt as if the season ended with last week's loss to Aston Villa. Liverpool's disappointing season was to be redeemed by a FA Cup final, as Liverpool's push for a Champions League place is held together by string, duct tape, hopes, and dreams, seven points behind fourth, albeit with a game in hand. But it wasn't to be. Close, but not close enough. Which has been this season's mantra, modus operandi, and bane.

With Lallana fit and Ibe available – although Sturridge, Sakho, and Lucas are still injured – I suspect Liverpool will revert to the 3-4-3. And maybe this time they'll use the formation throughout the match; with the aforementioned three players absent, it seems the best option by far. Skrtel and Lovren in a center-back pairing is an accident – nay, an atrocity – waiting to happen. Gerrard can't play in midfield, especially not as the deepest midfielder in a diamond or 4-3-3, and probably shouldn't start at all.

Because fourth isn't completely out of the question, we won't see wholesale changes, we won't see a plethora of under-21s. But there seems little point in starting those who won't have a role to play next season: Gerrard, Johnson, Toure, Lambert, and probably a couple of others (*sadly looks in Balotelli's direction*).

So the only questions should be who plays if Lallana's only fit enough for the bench – probably Markovic or Ibe, with the other at wing-back, but maybe Gerrard because Rodgers seemingly can't help himself – and whether Coutinho or Sterling play as the "striker." We haven't seen Coutinho as a false nine since his lone appearance in that position against Newcastle, but it was a tantalizing enough taste to want more. I doubt it works as well if Lallana's on the right: he's far less likely to run beyond defenders, a player who (like Coutinho) drops in and looks to knit play, but if it's Markovic or Ibe starting in that position, I'd really like to see Coutinho given a second chance.

West Brom aren't completely out of danger, although last week's win at Crystal Palace looks likely to have put them out of reach of relegation. 13th place, six points ahead of 18th and with a better goal difference (even though both Leicester and Hull have a game in hand), is probably enough. And that win over Palace was fairly impressive, mostly untroubled after scoring early, for just Palace's third league loss at home in 2015.

West Brom's survival looked a lot more tenuous prior to that win, prefaced by home losses to both QPR and Leicester, two sides still favored to go down. QPR scored four, Leicester three, and it's not like a Tony Pulis side to concede seven goals in two games at home to teams below them in the table. Prior to those two losses, West Brom had won four straight at home, against Swansea, West Ham, Southampton, and Stoke, keeping a clean sheet in all four. That's more like a Tony Pulis side. That's more like what I expect from Tony Pulis' side tomorrow.

Pulis' side have played 4-4-2 in the last three matches, and I expect similar tomorrow. Myhill; Baird, McAuley, Lescott, Brunt; Morrison, Fletcher, Yacob, Gardner; Berahino, Anichebe. With Dawson (and first-choice keeper Ben Foster) injured and Wisdom ineligible, Baird will have to play at right-back. Sessegnon or Callum McManaman could come in on the flanks, or attacking midfield if Pulis switches to 4-2-3-1. Brown Ideye could start up front rather than Anichebe. Regardless, it'll be a very Tony Pulis side, and Liverpool haven't had the best results against Tony Pulis sides. In fact, Liverpool have never beaten a Tony Pulis side in the league away from Anfield (three draws, three losses).

Liverpool arguably played its worse match of the campaign – if you discount the attacking failure against Chelsea or the collapse at Palace – on this ground last season. A completely insipid 1-1 draw: a brilliant opening goal from Sturridge followed by absolutely nothing good, culminating in a mind-boggling error from Toure for Anichebe's equalizer. The fewest shots on-target in a match where both Sturridge and Suarez played, Liverpool's second-worst final third passing accuracy since Rodgers became manager. Not only did West Brom soak up almost everything Liverpool did in attack, West Brom competed on an equal footing in both passing and possession.

This is, admittedly, a fairly different West Brom side, featuring at most five who started in last season's draw as well as a different manager. But it's also a very different Liverpool: out of form, low on confidence, and completely lacking in goals. If West Brom play as they did last week – disciplined and tight in defense, capable of punishing mistakes in attack – Liverpool probably will not win. Especially if Liverpool play as they did last week.

Expect West Brom to follow Aston Villa's template. Intermittent pressing, Anichebe and Berahino attempting to disrupt Liverpool as Benteke did, getting control in midfield and getting midfield runners in behind. It'll be up to Liverpool to prove that they've learned from their mistakes, to match the opposition's tempo, to take the game to their opponents rather than reacting, and to maybe, hopefully put the ball in the net a couple of times.

19 April 2015

Liverpool 1-2 Aston Villa

Coutinho 30'
Benteke 36'
Delph 54'

You couldn't have asked for a better encapsulation of this season.

Liverpool started slowly, second best against a side you'd expect them to take the game to. Liverpool, debilitated by injuries, were nowhere near their strongest XI, not that we've much clue what that strongest XI is. Liverpool couldn't settle on a formation, going from 3-4-2-1 to 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 over the course of the match. Liverpool's summer signings, at least those available (Emre Can excluded), were some of Liverpool's most noticeable scapegoats. Liverpool accommodated Gerrard to the detriment of everyone else in the side.

Liverpool somewhat surprisingly provided a ray of hope after 30 minutes, thanks to good work from Sterling and Coutinho and just a little bit of that elusive luck, but that ray was quickly extinguished by the seemingly omnipresent storm clouds. Liverpool tried hard, I guess, to get back into the game after going behind, but it was sound and fury signifying nothing as Liverpool couldn't put enough shots on-target and Liverpool didn't have anywhere near enough firepower in reserve.

Disappointing individual performances, baffling tactical choices, and an inability to change the game from the bench.

And in the end, Liverpool simply weren't good enough.

With Skrtel available, Liverpool reverted to the 3-4-2-1, but with Sterling back as the lone striker rather than Coutinho as a false nine, and with Gerrard shoehorned into the front three. And Liverpool started second best, Aston Villa's pressing disjointing Liverpool's play, Aston Villa controlling possession, the same way that too many sides have troubled Liverpool this season. Liverpool were unable to get the ball forward to the attackers, Liverpool were limited to speculative shots from distance and lucky to keep Aston Villa at bay.

Two changes happened just after the 20th minute: Nathan Baker's injury forced Okore to come on, and Liverpool switched to 4-2-3-1 – a formation we haven't seen since December 9 against Basel – with Can at right back and Gerrard behind Sterling, another example of Rodgers trying to figure where Gerrard would be the most effective. Or do the least damage.

And those changes resulted in the two goals that followed. With more bodies forward, Liverpool finally bundled a way through Villa's defense, preventing Okore from fully clearing, quick passes between Allen, Sterling, and Coutinho, Coutinho's shot fortunately deflecting off Okore's knee.

But Villa responded, five minutes of pressure before Emre Can was caught upfield, Grealish and Delph stormed down the Liverpool's inside right channel into space that'd be covered by a third center-back, Liverpool's two center-backs dropping off and Liverpool's midfielders failing to track the runners, finishing with Benteke perfectly placed for the cutback at the top of the box, which he struck perfectly.

Liverpool had two less-than-half chances in the ten minutes before the break, through a counter and a corner, but Villa finished the half the better side, Liverpool happier to get into the locker room level.

Halftime changes were clearly necessary. But I have no idea why Rodgers thought the best alternative was to bring on Balotelli for Markovic, shifting to 4-3-3. A center-back pairing with Skrtel and Lovren. Gerrard as the deepest midfielder. A lone striker who requires a strike partner to be anywhere near effective. These are the exact tactics which led to Liverpool's worst start in 50 years, which is why it's baffling that Rodgers thought it to be the answer in the match needed to save Liverpool's season after that horrific start. These three formation diagrams are like watching Liverpool go back in time through this dismal year.

So it was little surprise to see Villa take the lead after less than ten minutes: N'Zogbia winning his aerial duel with Gerrard in the middle of the pitch, Benteke exploiting the inside channel that'd be covered by a third center back, getting in behind the defense, Skrtel and Lovren all sorts of pulled out of position as Grealish found Delph running into the box, Delph easily stepping around Lovren to slot past Mignolet.

And then came the empty sound and fury: Villa soaking up Liverpool pressure, Liverpool unable to convert set piece opportunities, Balotelli caught offsides more often than he was able to take a shot (although, admittedly, it's maybe very different had the linesman correctly ruled him onside in the 88th, a move which ended with the ball in Villa's net).

Liverpool's last two changes were Johnson for Allen (shifting Can into midfield) in the 78th and Lambert for Moreno in added time, substitutions seemingly designed to highlight Liverpool's lack of depth rather than proactively alter proceedings. Liverpool's last shot in anger was Lovren nearly booting the ball out of the stadium from more than 35 yards with eight Liverpool's players ahead of him.

More microcosms of this malignant campaign.

So Liverpool were eliminated in the semifinals of both domestic cups. Liverpool were eliminated at the first stage of asking in both European competitions. Liverpool will probably finish fifth, possibly sixth, a place and/or a couple of points outside of the money-spinning Champions League places.

The nearly men. A lot like last year, but a different kind of depressing.

And now, Liverpool have a month of going through the motions before a summer where the players, the manager, and the owners will have a lot of questions to answer and a lot of problems to solve.

17 April 2015

Liverpool v Aston Villa 04.19.15

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 01.17.15
0-1 Villa (h) 09.13.14
2-2 (h) 1.18.14
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.24.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Newcastle (h); 1-0 Blackburn (a); 1-4 Arsenal (a)
Aston Villa: 1-0 Spurs (a); 3-3 QPR (h); 1-3 United (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-0 Blackburn (a); 0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Aston Villa: 2-0 West Brom (h); 2-1 Leicester (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (h); 1-0 Blackpool (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sterling 11; Gerrard 10; Henderson 7; Coutinho 6; Lallana, Sturridge 5; Balotelli 4; Lambert, Markovic 3; Moreno 2; Allen, Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Suso 1
Aston Villa: Benteke 11; Agbonlahor 6; Weimann 4; Sinclair 3; Bacuna, Carles Gil, Clark, Cole, Delph, Hutton, Okore 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Lovren
Johnson Henderson Allen Moreno
Markovic Coutinho Sterling

Skrtel's back, Gerrard's back. Sturridge and Lallana are probably still injured. Jordon Ibe remains cup-tied. Now that Skrtel's back, now that Liverpool has more than one or two center-backs available (in this equation, I'm counting Toure and Lovren as half a center-back each, I guess), will the side revert to the 3-4-3 or stick with the 4-3-3 we've seen for the last two and a half matches?

It'd be a lot easier to guess the 3-4-3 were Ibe available. Rusty after returning from injury against Newcastle, he's still Liverpool's best option at the position. But he's unavailable. Sterling has to play in attack, and Markovic might as well. So Liverpool can push Johnson into the role, shunt Henderson out wide so Gerrard or Lucas could play in midfield, or hand an unlikely start to Manquillo or Flanagan.

Gerrard's return is the other elephant in the room. Is there any room for sentimentality? Start him in midfield, or in attack, or use him as a substitute? I honestly have no idea. I personally wouldn't do the first option, and would lean towards the substitute option, but none are an easy decision. It's the admittedly fading club captain in a Wembley semifinal. If there's a time and place for sentimentality, it might well be tomorrow. It doesn't hurt that he's scored more goals against Villa (13) than any other side.

Or it's all moot and we see the same formation we saw against Newcastle, with Skrtel at center-back, Can at right-back, Markovic or Gerrard for Ibe, and/or possibly Gerrard for Lucas.

Regardless of 3-4-3 or 4-3-3, regardless of the other personnel choices, I'd like to see Coutinho reprise his role as a false nine, with Sterling and either Markovic or Gerrard on the opposite side. It worked well in creating space, in pulling Newcastle's center-backs out of position, and there's a reasonable assumption it could do the same against Villa.

Aston Villa. Perpetually a bane to Liverpool: this season's 1-0 loss at Anfield, last season's 2-2 draw at Anfield and narrow 1-0 away win, the humiliating 3-1 loss at Villa in December 2012. Managed by Tim Sherwood – Tactics Tim! – a perpetual source of amusement, beaten 0-4 in his only meeting against Liverpool.

Carlos Sanchez is unavailable through suspension. Clark, Hutton, Herd, Senderos, and Cissokho will range from "probably out" to "out injured." Agbonlahor and Carles Gil will be late decisions, but both Westwood and Sinclair should be fit.

If Westwood and Sinclair are risked, the most likely Villa XI seems to be Guzan; Bacuna, Vlaar, Baker, Richardson; Cleverley, Westwood, Delph; Sinclair; Weimann, Benteke. Villa have played a 4-4-2 diamond in their last two matches, but could switch to 4-5-1, with Sinclair on the left and Weimann, N'Zogbia or Joe Cole on the right if Agbonlahor's not available to start. But given how important he is to Villa, you'd expect Agbonlahor to be used if at all possible.

Guzan is the better keeper, but Shay Given has been the usual keeper during this FA Cup run. Baker came on after Clark's injury last week, but Okore could be preferred at center-back along with Vlaar. Richardson can play at left-back or in midfield. 19-year-old Jack Grealish could make his third consecutive start anywhere in an attacking midfield role, whether central or on the flank. Tim Sherwood remains Tim Sherwood; we can't predict what he's going to do because I doubt he knows what he's going to do. Since joining Villa, they've played 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-Diamond-2, and 4-3-2-1. Sherwood will "go for it." His team will try to attack, featuring a lot of long balls to Benteke, try to press a bit, probably be relatively organized in defense, and probably not organized in midfield. As to formation or personnel, your guess really is as good as mine. And as good as Tim's.

Regardless, Aston Villa still have Christian Benteke. With eight goals and two assists in the nine matches he's played since Sherwood became manager. Which is more goals than any Liverpool player except Sterling and Gerrard have scored this season. With three goals in his five matches against Liverpool, albeit none in his last three (although it's worth mentioning he had a game-high five shots in Liverpool's 2-0 win in January).

This will be Aston Villa's first FA Cup match away from home, beating Blackpool, Bournemouth, Leicester and West Brom on route to Wembley. Liverpool were unable to win and unable to score in their two FA Cup home matches, and are still somehow in this position anyway.

But for all of Liverpool's defensive improvement since the New Year, Liverpool have kept a clean sheet in just one of their four away FA Cup matches, last round at Blackburn. Aston Villa have scored in eight goals in Tim Sherwood's 10 matches.

It goes without saying that anything can happen in the cups, at Wembley. It's up to Liverpool to ensure the expected takes place.

14 April 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: Blackburn (a) [FA]Arsenal (a), Manchester United (h). Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), 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)

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.)

This infographic does not adequately explain how bad Newcastle were. My memory clearly isn't perfect, but I'm struggling to think of less impressive opponents this season. Maybe Hull, who didn't even try to attack but still came away with a point at Anfield back in October. Maybe Leicester, who did little right, outshooting Liverpool but only scoring because a rebound led to an off-target shot which ricocheted off the post and then off Mignolet's back, before gift-wrapping Liverpool three goals in a 3-1 win on Leicester's ground in December.

This infographic does adequately explain a couple of things, though. 1) Liverpool's continuing issues, writing about which has become rote, primarily Liverpool's inability to consistently put shots on-target or to score goals. 2) Just as against Blackburn, Liverpool's inability to limit the opposition's chances, despite playing opposition as bad as Newcastle were.

It seems the height of hubris to write, but any good chances for that Newcastle side was too many chances. And yet Liverpool required a marvelous save from Mignolet when Perez found space for a header and for Lee Mason to unbelievably ignore the clearest of penalties from Dejan Lovren, not to mention a handful of half chances for the away side. Despite out-possessing Newcastle 62.1-37.9%, Liverpool only outshot Newcastle 14-10. The penalty was an individual mistake (and had it been given, it'd have been Lovren's seventh defensive error of the season, tying him for the most in the league with QPR's Rob Green). As was Perez's header to a lesser extent, getting behind Can and in front of Johnson far too easily. Late runs into the box allowed Abeid two dangerous first half chances, midfielders late to track, center-backs late to step up. And then there was the 10-minute spell of pressure to start the half, even if it resulted in only a couple of speculative shots.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. It was just the third time Liverpool have played four-at-the-back in 2015, after the second half at Arsenal and the FA Cup tie at Blackburn. It was the first time we've seen that back four, the first time Emre Can has played in a center-back pairing, Johnson making his first league start since December 14, and Dejan Lovren continuing to be Dejan Lovren. Liverpool have played two opponents far less talented than they are, and yes, Liverpool have kept clean sheets in both matches, but you can't help think that opponents better than Blackburn and Newcastle will ruthlessly dismantle a four-man Liverpool defense.

Liverpool had an awful Newcastle by the throat in the first 30 minutes, yet should have gone into halftime either level or behind. It took until the 70th minute to seal the match, which seems around 40-50 minutes longer than it should have.

And that's because Liverpool remain about as toothless as a homeless meth addict.

Sterling's goal was fantastic: an incredible cross-field assist from Henderson, Sterling doing what he does best in cutting inside from the left and side-footing past the keeper. Allen's goal was surprisingly well-taken, if resulting from a defensive error, an unfortunate ricochet off Williamson.

In between (and after), Liverpool wasted multiple opportunities. And it was more the final pass or poor touch or failed run than off-target shooting; Liverpool's 42.9% shooting accuracy is one of the better this season, even if the other on-target shots (Coutinho and Moreno from narrow angles, Coutinho and Sterling from distance) were fairly simple saves. But Sterling's missed sitter, Lovren and Sterling's missed set play chances, Borini's heavy touch when through on goal, Sterling not continuing his run for Coutinho's center across the six-yard box all stick out in the memory, and there are certainly other moments I'm missing.

But again, maybe this is too harsh. Here we are, a 2-0 win, the 13th clean sheet of the league campaign, four points off fourth, and I've done nothing but complain. Liverpool had an unfamiliar back four and no recognized striker. The average age of the starting XI was just 23.9, and that includes 30-year-old Glen Johnson and 28-year-old Lucas; otherwise the oldest outfield player was 25-year-old Dejan Lovren.

When Liverpool took shots, they took them from good positions. 11 of Liverpool's 14 shots came inside the box, the second-highest proportion of inside-the-box shots this season. Only the 2-0 win at Villa, another comprehensive if less-than-impressive victory against fairly dismal opposition, featured higher (10 of 12 shots inside the box).

Coutinho was surprisingly influential as a false nine – the first time he's played there for Liverpool and, to my limited-outside-Liverpool knowledge, in his career – finding space between Newcastle's lines, able to create for runners (Sterling, Henderson, Ibe, Borini) in behind. Despite playing in such an advanced position, only Lucas and Moreno completed more passes. No one took more shots, only Henderson created more chances. It won't work against every opponent, but it was a clever tactic against Newcastle, confusing a makeshift defense, drawing the center-backs out of position, creating space for other attackers. Space in attack has been at a premium for this Liverpool side throughout the season.

Finally, an amusing statistic, if incidental to the result. Yesterday's match saw Newcastle's sixth red card in their last six matches against Liverpool. The only game which hasn't featured a Newcastle dismissal since Rodgers became manager was the reverse fixture, Liverpool's pathetic 0-1 loss in November. Sissoko yesterday, Shola Ameobi and Dummett in May 2014, Yanga-Mbiwa in October 2013, Debuchy in April 2013, and Coloccini in November 2012. Six red cards, six different players.

Never stop being you, Newcastle.

12 April 2015

Liverpool v Newcastle 04.13.15

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Newcastle (a) 11.01.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 05.11.14
2-2 (a) 10.19.13
6-0 Liverpool (a) 04.27.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Blackburn (a); 1-4 Arsenal (a); 1-2 United (h)
Newcastle: 0-1 Sunderland (a); 1-2 Arsenal (h); 0-3 Everton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Henderson, Sterling 6; Henderson 5; Coutinho, Lallana, Sturridge 4; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Newcastle: Cisse 11; Perez 5; Colback, Sissoko 3; Ameobi, Gouffran 2; Aarons, Cabella, Coloccini, Janmaat, Kemen, Obertan, S Taylor, Williamson 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Can Toure Lovren Moreno
Henderson Allen
Coutinho Sturridge Sterling

Wednesday added a wrinkle to what had become a surprisingly easy lineup guessing game.

Emre Can is back from suspension, but Skrtel's still banned for one more game and Sakho will be out for the next couple of weeks. So, will Liverpool revert to the 3-4-2-1 or persist with the 4-3-3 we saw at Blackburn?

Liverpool kept a clean sheet at Blackburn and Liverpool won, but neither came easily. Liverpool still struggled to put the ball in the net (or near the net, for that matter), and Liverpool allowed Blackburn far too many decent chances. But while Newcastle is certainly no Arsenal, Liverpool were even worse in the 3-4-2-1 with the makeshift back three, especially with Toure as the sweeper. Which is the main reason why I suspect that Liverpool will stick with the formation we saw midweek. But I write that without much conviction.

Emre Can, a 21-year-old central midfielder, has already played center-back, right wing-back, and right midfield this season. And I think he could do a job at right back in this formation: a more willing, more dangerous, stronger runner than Johnson was against Blackburn, also capable of dealing with Sammy Ameobi when Newcastle counter through pace and/or long balls. Whether Liverpool play four-at-the-back or three-at-the-back, the right (wing)back spot remains the hardest to fill.

There's also another alternative if Liverpool play four-at-the-back. Liverpool have the personnel to deploy a midfield diamond without changing the probable XI. Lucas (or Can, for that matter) at the base, Henderson and Allen as the shuttlers, Coutinho at the apex, Sterling and Sturridge up front.

If it's 3-4-2-1, it's an easier XI to predict. Can, Toure, and Lovren in defense; Moreno at left-wing back; Henderson and Allen or Lucas in midfield; Sterling and Coutinho behind Sturridge. The only question is the usual question: who plays right wing-back? It could be Johnson or Markovic or Ibe or Flanagan, the latter two both back in training after their respective injuries.

Newcastle, currently 13th, have arguably been the worst side in the division over the last two months, with one win, two draws, and five losses since the start of February. Only Hull – Liverpool's next opponent – have been comparably bad. And not only are Newcastle in terrible form, they'll be missing a ton of players as well. Tiote, Steven Taylor, Siem de Jong, Dummett, Haidara, and Aarons are all out injured. Cisse and Coloccini remain suspended. At least Janmaat should be fit after picking up a calf injury against Sunderland, while Jonas should be in line for a second start after missing a full year due to testicular cancer. 21-year-old midfielder, and 21-year old midfielder Abeid should be back from a month-long thigh injury.

Which means tomorrow's XI should look at lot like that which lost at Sunderland, which lost to Arsenal.Something like Krul; R Taylor, Janmaat, Williamson, Colback; Anita, Jonas; Cabella, Sissoko, Ameobi; Perez.

Coloccini's suspension along with the injuries to Dummett, Taylor, and Haidara means that Janmaat will probably be needed at center back, which means Ryan Taylor will be needed at right-back, which means Colback will be the stand-in left back again. Central midfield will be some combination of Anita, Abeid, Jonas, Gouffran, and Sissoko. Newcastle do have options in the front four – Ameobi, Gouffran, Cabella, Sissoko, Obertan, Riviere, and Perez – but none have made a position their own, with Newcastle scoring just two goals in the last five matches.

Newcastle have nothing but pride to play for. They're securely lower mid-table despite all the recent losses, seemingly just out of reach of relegation thanks to points accrued under Pardew. It's hard to see how they'll be up for tomorrow's match when they were unable to get up for a Northeast Derby against their fiercest rivals a week ago. And past seasons have followed a familiar script: Liverpool drop points they've no right to drop against Newcastle in one of the matches, then easily stroll past Newcastle in the other. It was most notable in 2012-13, a 6-0 win at St. James' Park in April after a disappointing 1-1 draw in November, but similar happened last season, Liverpool's last day 2-1 win a lot less close than the scoreline suggests, both teams clearing having nothing to play for.

Of course, little has come that easily for Liverpool this season.

09 April 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Blackburn

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (a), Manchester United (h). Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), 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 WhoScored.

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

Yeah, I don't usually do infographics for domestic cup matches. Maybe I just needed to remember what a fairly-in-control performance and a winning result looked like. It's been too long.

Sure, it wasn't great. Liverpool rarely looked like scoring for almost 70 minutes. Liverpool required two marvelous saves from Mignolet, a missed free header from Rhodes, and a you-could-have-never-seen-it-in-real-time handball from Allen ignored to keep them from conceding an opener, all with a makeshift defense playing in a back four for the first time in a long time.

But it was good enough. In cup competition, that's all that matters. With a two-match losing streak and a four-match 'ugh what's happened to Liverpool?' streak, that's all that matters.

Of course, there's obviously still room for improvement at both ends.

Seven of Blackburn's 10 shots came in the Danger Zone: two on-target, two off-target, three blocked. That's a terrifyingly large percentage of higher percentage chances. And that's incredibly dangerous against better attacking sides. In Liverpool's last two losses, they allowed two Danger Zone shots to United (from six in total), and seven (from 16 in total) at Arsenal. In the 16 previous league matches, since the switch to 3-4-2-1, Liverpool allowed just 60 DZ shots from 170 in total – 35.3%.

To be fair, that's how Blackburn were always going to attack, limited to shots from set plays, crosses, and a couple of counter-attacks. But it's still worrying. 39 of the 55 goals Liverpool have conceded (26 of 36 in the league) have come from the Danger Zone, after all. And it's something that Liverpool will have to improve in future matches, especially if Liverpool are going to persist with four-at-the-back, and especially given news that Sakho will be out for the next few weeks due to a hamstring injury (with Skrtel still suspended for one more match).

And, of course, there were also the usual problems with Liverpool's shooting, specifically putting shots on-target. But Liverpool at least improved in one area compared to the reverse fixture (well, two, considering Liverpool actually scored in this match). Blackburn only blocked two of Liverpool's shots. They blocked eight of Liverpool's 22 at Anfield. Considering Blackburn routinely had anywhere from six to eight defenders in the box, Liverpool did decent job in finding space for shots. Sterling and Coutinho, used on the left and right respectively rather than the more-typical opposite, both did well with the ball at their feet: Sterling completing seven of 12 dribbles, Coutinho four of four.

Liverpool have averaged 4.3 blocked shots per match through 31 league matches, against defenses that don't sit as deep or as compact as Blackburn did (as well as 5.0 shots on-target and 5.9 shots off-target per match).

The next step is, you know, getting a few more of those shots on target.

07 April 2015

Liverpool at Blackburn 04.08.15

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 03.08.15
3-2 Liverpool (a) 04.10.12
1-1 (h) 12.26.11
1-3 Blackburn (a) 01.05.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-4 Arsenal (a); 1-2 United (h); 1-0 Swansea (a)
Blackburn: 3-0 Leeds (a); 0-1 Brighton (h); 2-3 Brentford (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Blackburn: 0-0 Liverpool (a); 4-1 Stoke (h); 3-1 Swansea (h); 2-1 Charlton (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 10; Henderson 7; Coutinho, Lallana, Sturridge 5; Balotelli 4; Lambert, Markovic 3; Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Suso 1
Blackburn: Rhodes 17; Gestede 16; Marshall 6; King, C Taylor 4; Baptiste, Cairney, Conway 3; Duffy, Evans, Hanley, Henley, Spearing, Tunnicliffe 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Lovren Sakho
Markovic Henderson Allen Moreno
Sterling Sturridge

A quarterfinal replay in the FA Cup, the last chance for any meaningful reward from this trying season.

We know Rodgers will deploy a full-strength XI, or as full-strength as possible. That's his modus operandi in most cup matches, let alone a cup match that's taken on this importance. But will Liverpool persist with the 3-4-2-1?

That two of Liverpool's three preferred center-backs are suspended (along with Gerrard) makes three-at-the-back a tougher proposition. If Rodgers retains the formation, two from Toure, Lovren, and Johnson will have to start in defense along with Sakho. And that's a frightening proposition. But I'm not sure it's more frightening that Sakho and Lovren or Toure partnered against Blackburn's probable 4-4-2.

If Liverpool do switch to a four-man defense, I hope it'll be with a diamond in midfield and two strikers up front. If Liverpool stick with three at the back, I hope it'll be with two strikers up front.

Put simply, it's become fairly clear that Sturridge needs a strike partner. And right now, given that Balotelli is "injured" and that Borini and Lambert are Borini and Lambert, that strike partner has to be Sterling. Play him higher up the pitch, trying to do things that Suarez did last season – constant movement, running with the ball at his feet, dragging defenders out of position so Sturridge can exploit the space – with Coutinho deeper. Whether that's in a 4-4-2 diamond or a 3-4-1-2 seems a less important facet.

Otherwise, the team writes itself. If a 4-4-2 diamond: Manqullo and Moreno as the fullbacks with a midfield of Lucas, Allen, Henderson, and Coutinho. If 3-4-1-2: Markovic and Moreno as the wing-backs with Henderson and Lucas or Allen in midfield. Both Lallana and Balotelli might be available after missing Saturday's match through injury, but I doubt either is in line (or should be in line) to start anyway.

Blackburn lost three in a row before beating 10-man Leeds by three goals on Saturday, their first comprehensive performance since holding Liverpool scoreless a month ago, with all three goals (from Cairney, Rhodes, and Spearing) coming after the dismissal. Teenage goalkeeper David Raya Martin made his debut, and strikers Gestede and Brown both went off with knocks which make them questionable for tomorrow.

Gary Bowyer's side lined up in a 4-5-1 in the reverse fixture, but have almost always played 4-4-2 in recent Championship matches. At home, they're seemingly more likely to go with the more familiar, more potent formation. In which case it'll be something like Steele; Henley, Baptiste, Kilgallon, Olsson; Cairney, Williamson, Evans, Marshall; Rhodes, Gestede.

Jay Spearing's cup-tied; as with Gestede and Brown, Chris Taylor's also questionable; Conway, Hanley, Dunn, and King will most likely miss out through injury. Gestede and Brown's availability will determine whether or not 4-4-2 is feasible; if both aren't ready to start, it'll have to be 4-5-1. Either way, Blackburn's tactics won't differ much. Sit deep, congest the middle of the park, sporadic midfield pressing, and look for Rhodes or Gestede or Rhodes and Gestede on the counter.

It will be interesting to see just how much pressing Blackburn attempt. That's how Swansea, United, and Arsenal have attacked Liverpool over the last few weeks, and that's been one of Liverpool's major failings over the last few weeks (along with Liverpool's much-discussed impotence). Will Blackburn be brave enough to take the game to Liverpool, to potentially leave space in behind if Liverpool can break the press? They are at home and Liverpool are a wounded animal at the moment, but it's somewhat antithetical to how Blackburn usually play, and how Blackburn "succeeded" against Liverpool at Anfield.

But regardless of how Blackburn approach the match, there simply has to be a response from Liverpool tomorrow. The season isn't over yet, there's more than just pride to play for (even if pride, especially after the last two losses, should be enough). But if Liverpool don't respond tomorrow, this season truly will be over. And I'm truly terrified of the fall out that will accompany it.

06 April 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-4 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester United (h). Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Manchester City (h). Besiktas (a), 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)

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

That was payback for February 2014, almost the diametric opposite of Liverpool's 5-1 win over Arsenal 14 months ago. It's the circle of life.

The home side exceptionally potent, mainly in the last ten minutes of the first half rather than the first 20 minutes, but exceptionally potent enough to put the game out of reach by halftime nonetheless. The home side in control early on, especially in creating opportunities – both open play and set play – due to pressing in the opposition half, leading to multiple goals in quick succession. Then, an archetypal counter-attacking second half, soaking up pressure, scoring once more, basically untroubled but also conceding an unnecessary consolation from the penalty spot.

Turnabout's fair play, I guess.

Every Arsenal player who took at least one shot put at least one shot on-target. 16 attempts, 10 on-target, an accuracy of 62.5%. Liverpool has bettered that accuracy just once this season, putting four of six shots on-target at Southampton (and scoring two goals). Meanwhile, Liverpool put just two shots on-target in total on Saturday: Henderson's penalty, and Can's fairly-easily-saved effort in the 57th. Which I guess in an improvement on Liverpool's one shot on-target in the previous match against United. Two matches to define the season. 20 shots in total. Three shots on-target, one of which was from the spot. That profligacy has been a defining characteristic this season, even in the "good matches," and the bill has come due at the worst possible time.

Just like United, just like Swansea, Arsenal unbalanced Liverpool early on by pressing Liverpool in its own half. 11 of Arsenal's 26 interceptions and 10 of Arsenal's 24 successful tackles took place in Liverpool's half. Eight of those 11 interceptions (and five of the successful tackles) came in the first half. Liverpool have been figured out, and Liverpool haven't responded.

Prior to Saturday's match, Liverpool had made all of three defensive errors since the switch to 3-4-2-1. Three. In total. One leading to a shot in both matches against Swansea, and one leading to a goal against Manchester United in December. For comparison, Liverpool made 19 (14 leading to a shot, five leading to a goal) in the 15 matches before the switch. It was an incredible turnaround.

Liverpool doubled that total on Saturday thanks to three more errors: two leading to a shot (from Allen and Toure, in the first five minutes), one leading to a goal (Moreno). Enforced changes in defense had a lot to do with it. Arsenal's pressing had a lot to do with it. Arsenal being very good and very fast and very fluid in attack had a lot to do with it as well.

Liverpool had to make changes at halftime, but it was strange to see both the switch to 4-1-4-1 and Markovic hauled off for Sturridge. Markovic played just 45 minutes – the 45 minutes where Liverpool were second-best and had much less possession – and still led the team in chances created. I'm fairly certain it wouldn't have altered the result, but I can't help but wonder how Liverpool would have done had Sturridge replaced Allen or Lucas instead, shifting Henderson inside and Markovic to wing-back, keeping the three-at-the-back formation (ideally 3-4-1-2, with Sterling partnering Sturridge because it's become fairly clear that Sturridge needs a strike partner).

But that's wholly moot. An unfamiliar defense due to a suspension to Liverpool's stalwart sweeper. A new central midfield pairing, with one of the two players just back from injury. Liverpool's best central midfielder forced into wing-back duty for the first time since New Year's Day because no Liverpool player has been able to make the position his own. Continued errant shooting in front of goal. And an in-form Arsenal strong enough and smart enough to take advantage of those weaknesses and put Liverpool to the sword. It was a recipe for disaster, partly of Liverpool's making, but just as much due to Arsenal's ability.

It was the first time that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool has conceded four goals, just the third time that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool has lost a league match by three goals, and it was completely deserved.

04 April 2015

Liverpool 1-4 Arsenal

Bellerin 37'
Özil 40'
Alexis 45'
Henderson 76' [pen]
Giroud 90+1'

One team completely outclassed the other. Unfortunately, Liverpool were very much the other.

With Sturridge only fit enough for the bench, Liverpool's lineup looked a lot like the reverse fixture's: Henderson at wing-back, Sterling up top, Markovic and Lucas returning to the starting XI. Unfortunately, Liverpool did not begin today's game as they did in the reverse fixture.

The first ten minutes set the tone, despite Arsenal amazingly failing to score, as Liverpool had more giveaways in their own half than touches in the opposition half. As against Swansea and United, Liverpool were completely overrun in midfield from the start thanks to opposition pressing. It's probably not a good thing that the opposition has figured out Liverpool's set-up in each of the last three matches and Liverpool have still persisted with the same formation.

But Liverpool somehow weathered the early storm, Liverpool somehow took the game to Arsenal, and Liverpool should have taken the lead when Coutinho put Markovic through but his centered pass for a Sterling tap-in was slightly overhit. Liverpool actually looked the better side for more than a few minutes. And then Arsenal thoroughly dismissed that notion in the final 10 minutes of the half.

Bellerin struck first, with Liverpool outnumbered out wide when Özil spread play wide to Ramsey, who set up Bellerin, who cut inside past Moreno far too easily with Allen late to cover, curling a left-footed shot around Mignolet through the gap between Liverpool's defenders. It was the first away goal that Liverpool conceded in 596 minutes, since van Persie's third at Old Trafford on December 14. It would be swiftly followed by two more. Eight minutes to doom the day, eight minutes to kill the campaign.

Next came Özil's pitch-perfect free kick, beating Mignolet on the side where he shouldn't be beaten. Then came Alexis Sanchez, after yet another Liverpool giveaway in midfield as Arsenal pressed Allen and Lucas, taking Ramsey's pass in stride at full speed, dancing around a despairing Toure, then slamming the ball into the net from the top of the box.

Oof. At 0-2, Liverpool have a chance. A very small chance, but a chance nonetheless. At 0-3, it's game over, and the final 45 are a formality.

Regardless, Liverpool had to change things in the second half, Sturridge had to come on. Once again, too little, too late – both mantra and modus operandi this season. But it was still strange to see Liverpool switch to 4-1-4-1.

And unsurprisingly, it was ineffective, with Arsenal happy to soak up Liverpool pressure, Liverpool stifled and smothered outside Arsenal's box, typically narrow, once again unable to stretch the defense with pace or spacing or anything from out wide. Coutinho with no room to manuever, Sturridge isolated without a strike partner. Liverpool got a consolation when Bellerin took down Sterling in the box – and, yes, Bellerin should have been sent off for a second yellow – with Henderson (barely) scoring the spot kick, but few were fooled into thinking a comeback was on the cards. That Emre Can did get a second yellow and Oliver Giroud did score his 10th goal in the last 11 games was a fitting finish for a disheartening day.

Today was the first time that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool have conceded four goals in a match, the first time since nine-man Liverpool lost 0-4 at White Hart Lane in September 2011. Today was the first time that Liverpool have had players sent off in consecutive matches since 2000-01 (amusingly also involving a Gerrard red card).

And today was the second consecutive match where Liverpool put just one non-penalty shot on-target and had a player sent off. The two matches to either define or save Liverpool's campaign, against the two sides directly ahead of Liverpool in the table, and that's what Liverpool produces.

That's simply not good enough. Liverpool weren't good enough today, Liverpool haven't been good enough this season. Liverpool aren't anywhere near good enough in front of goal, and the better sides can take advantage of that to take advantage of Liverpool's sometimes-good-enough defense.

There's only one thing left to save any face this season, and it starts with Liverpool's next match: the FA Cup replay at Blackburn. With just four days rest; with the team having completely lost form and confidence; and with Skrtel and Can (and Gerrard, I guess) suspended, requiring wholesale changes in defense.

Liverpool have to respond. But does anyone still have faith that Liverpool can respond?