30 September 2015

Liverpool v FC Sion 10.01.15

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Head-to-head meetings:
6-3 Liverpool (h) 10.31.96
2-1 Liverpool (a) 10.17.96

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Villa (h); 1-1 Carlisle aet [3-2 pens] (h); 1-1 Norwich (h)
Sion: 0-1 Vaduz (a); 0-2 Grasshopper (h); 2-0 Münsingen (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Sion: 2-1 Rubin Kazan (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana 1
Sion: Konate 2

Referee: Slavko Vinčić (SVN)

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Gomez
Clyne Rossiter Allen Ibe
Ings Origi

As per usual. Liverpool are going to make a lot of changes to the starting XI in this competition. Liverpool have even more incentive to make changes with a Merseyside Derby imminent. Liverpool have even less ability to make changes because of the lengthy injury list, still featuring Henderson, Benteke, Firmino, Lovren, and Flanagan.

Let's start our assumptions by assuming Liverpool will stick with three at the back. Because, well, Liverpool have been marginally better in that formation.

Gomez and Toure seemingly have to start in defense, joined by Skrtel only because he's more durable than Sakho.

Jordon Ibe will be one of the wing backs, most likely joined by Clyne, who sat out the match at Bordeaux, seemingly less in need of rest than Moreno is. There's a small chance that Can keeps his spot in central defense, allowing Gomez to play as the other wing-back, but Can is the only player who has featured in all nine of Liverpool's fixtures and Joe Gomez is not a wing-back. I doubt I need remind that Jose Enrique is still not a thing.

Rossiter and Allen look certain to be the midfield, allowing Milner, Lucas, and Can to be rested.

The attack is slightly more difficult to forecast. With Benteke and Firmino out and with Sturridge certain to be rested, one of Coutinho or Ings will have to join Lallana and Origi in attack. Ings, Energizer Bunny-in-training that he appears to be, is probably more capable of being fit for Sunday's derby after playing 90 minutes on Thursday.

Maybe Liverpool revert to 4-3-3, something like Mignolet; Clyne, Skrtel, Toure, Gomez; Milner, Rossiter, Allen; Ibe, Origi, Lallana, but if it ain't (that) broke, etc.

FC Sion are currently fifth in the Swiss league – winning four, losing four, and drawing twice – already 13 points behind league leaders Basel. Which kind of seems par for the course; they finished 7th of 10 last season, qualifying for the Europa League because of their victory in the Swiss Cup.

But Sion's owner is angry, hilariously condemning both manager and playing staff after their second successive defeat last weekend. Which, knowing Liverpool, will be a prelude to Sion heroically finding form, and which wouldn't have been wholly out of the question anyway, having beaten a favored Rubin Kazan at home in the last group stage match.

I've admittedly heard of just three of Sion's players, because I'm pretty bad about watching any competition that isn't based in England or featuring Liverpool: right-back Zverotic, who featured for Young Boys against Liverpool in this competition three years ago; left-back Ziegler, a Swiss international and formerly of Tottenham, among others; and new signing Mujangi Bia, a winger who's had short stints with Wolves and Watford in recent years.

My complete guess at their XI, based off their last few lineups, is Vanins; Zverotic, Lacroix, Vanczak, Ziegler; Salatic; Mujangi Bia, Kouassi, Edimilson Fernandes, Carlitos; Konate. Some variation on 4-5-1, whether it ends up looking more like a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3. I'm obviously hoping the former, because the latter would mean they're on the front foot far too often. 22-year-old Senegal international Moussa Konate is the main threat, linked with a host of Premier League clubs over the summer, having scored both of Sion's goals against Kazan and five goals in the league.

This is a match that Liverpool need to win if they hope to qualifying for the knockout rounds. Win your home games, compete in the away games; sometimes it really is as simple as that. This is a match that Liverpool need to win to demonstrate that Saturday wasn't a fluke and that this squad is beginning to make tangible progress, to relieve the pressure on both Rodgers and the playing staff. And even though it dwarfs tomorrow in importance, Liverpool can't already focus on Sunday's derby.

There aren't any easy matches in Europe, as every Premier League side in Europe has demonstrated, whether in the Champions League or Europa League. English sides are big scalps for the smaller countries, and lately, English sides often seem woefully underprepared for continental competition.

That simply can't happen to Liverpool tomorrow.

28 September 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 3-2 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Scoring goals makes all the difference. Who would've guessed?

Philippe Coutinho's still shooting, probably too much. His seven shots led the team, again, as he has (at least jointly) in each match he's played this season. But he also created three chances – the same total he created in his previous five league matches combined – leading to two assists. Liverpool desperately need Coutinho to create, much more than Liverpool need Coutinho to shoot.

Daniel Sturridge had a lot to do with that. That Liverpool finally have a finisher the caliber of Daniel Sturridge has the potential to make all the difference. Each finish was delightfully spectacular in different ways: the first a volley few are capable of, the second a cool, placed, weaker-foot strike on the run.

It's no coincidence that both of Sturridge's goals came from one-two passing with one of Liverpool's more advanced midfielders, getting behind defenders and on the end of dangerous balls into the penalty box.

Via @LiverpoolGIFs: [Sturridge's first] [Sturridge's second]

None of Liverpool's strikers made these runs last season, we rarely saw this type of final third combination play last season. And without Sturridge's goals, this match probably finishes level, at best, if not a 1-2 Liverpool loss. Liverpool are still conceding goals they shouldn't concede – either Sakho or Can could have prevented the first; there was little anyone could do about the second if Amavi's perfect cross isn't blocked – but at least Liverpool are scoring more than once, for a change.

It's not as if Sturridge was the sole player to play well; he didn't even have his best game, still clearly a bit rusty and very much tiring by the time he scored his second. It's not as if Sturridge was the sole reason Liverpool won, even if he was the biggest reason. He provided the most important piece of the puzzle, the piece Liverpool had lacked during the long fall, winter, spring, and summer of our discontent.

Lucas' outstanding performance is definitely worth highlighting as well. Saturday saw the first time a Liverpool player completed 100 or more passes since the 0-1 home loss to Aston Villa almost exactly a year ago, when Henderson completed 111 of 121 and Lovren completed 100 of 118. To be fair, Gerrard completed 99 of 117 in the 0-0 at West Brom last April, but we haven't seen that arbitrary yet magical triple-digits in 41 league matches.

That Liverpool lost the last time a player completed 100 passes demonstrates it's not the be-all, end-all, obviously. You still need the players ahead to actually put the ball in the net. But it's helpful, especially when Liverpool's midfield has often resembled a smoldering tire fire over the last few months. And couple Lucas' 100 passes with 11 successful tackles – six in Villa's half – and two interceptions – both in Villa's half – and it shows a level of control in midfield that Liverpool have long lacked.

Lucas' defensive work-rate in Villa's half also demonstrates that Liverpool actually can and will press on occasion. Eight of Liverpool's 28 successful tackles, seven of 15 interceptions, and 17 of 52 ball recoveries came at that end of the pitch. Liverpool pressure was crucial in leading to the game-winning third goal: Sturridge, Coutinho, and Milner's harrying forcing Villa into a giveaway on which Sturridge and Coutinho deftly capitalized. It also led to three of Liverpool's four late chances, which Coutinho (from a direct free kick), Ings, and Sturridge failed to convert. We didn't see much pressure in the first half, when Liverpool simply monopolized the ball – 72.4% possession is the most in a half since that 0-0 at West Brom last April, only surpassed by that and the second half in that 0-1 versus Villa – but Liverpool stepped it up in the second, when Villa were tiring and when Liverpool desperately needed goals.

As more than a few people have mentioned, yes, this all happened against Aston Villa, currently 18th in the league, having won just one of their first seven league matches. I suspect you saw multiple people tweet that Liverpool's last five league wins, all of Liverpool's league wins since beating Swansea on March 16, came against sides currently 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and relegated QPR. This is obviously concerning.

I've referenced the 0-1 to Aston Villa and 0-0 at West Brom a couple of times so far, the similarities in both Liverpool's passing and possession. Both of those sides were just as bad as Villa were on Saturday. And Liverpool lost and drew those two matches, held scoreless in both.

Liverpool have found multiple innovative new ways to lose to teams worse than Aston Villa were on Saturday over the last calendar year. Clearly, Liverpool still need to prove capable of repeating it against better opposition. Liverpool at least took all three points, playing fairly well. Regardless of opposition, that hasn't happened enough since the start of last season.

The difference between yesterday and those aforementioned fixtures against Villa and West Brom? Yes, mostly Daniel Sturridge, but also better shooting in general. Balotelli led Liverpool's line in both of those matches. Coutinho took the most shots in both of those matches. Liverpool put a combined six of 40 shots on target in those two matches, with 23 of those 40 shots came from outside the box. Liverpool took better shots on Saturday, Liverpool's creators created better shots on Saturday, Liverpool put more of those shots on target.

Ings and Benteke are still better options than Liverpool had last season. I still believe that both, as they acclimatize to their teammates and Liverpool's playing style, will provide a better chance for success if – every deity forbid – Sturridge gets injured again than Balotelli, Borini, Lambert et al did last season.

Sturridge scoring, Coutinho creating, Lucas providing the platform, better balance in midfield with both Coutinho and Milner ahead of a single defensive midfielder, Ings' work-rate, Moreno's width on the left stretching Villa's defense. All of these factors played some role in Liverpool's victory. Still, Daniel Sturridge, even at, say, 80% of his best, remains the most irreplaceable.

26 September 2015

Liverpool 3-2 Aston Villa

Milner 2'
Sturridge 59' 67'
Gestede 66' 71'

Daniel Sturridge simply did not let Liverpool be Liverpool today. He wasn't anywhere near his peak, but he still scored two outstanding goals, which made all the difference. When you have a world class finisher, you have a chance.

Despite scoring the fastest goal in the Premier League this season, the first half was all too familiar. Milner's good touch and pinpoint left-footed finish from just outside the box was really Liverpool's only good opportunity of the half. Liverpool had more than 72% possession in the first half, but created just six chances, took just seven shots.

Had Aston Villa capitalized on Liverpool mistakes the way that Norwich or Carlisle had, then we'd have been level at halftime, or Liverpool would have been losing. The two best chances after Liverpool's opener were both from the away side, both featuring the all-too-typical tentative, wacky, and weak defending. First, Emre Can's attempted clearance fell straight to Gestede, spinning a shot just wide. Then, pinball in the box after Mignolet half-cleared Hutton's dangerous cross on the break, but it ended with Westwood's shot deflected just wide. Liverpool didn't get those lucky bounces in the last two matches.

Aston Villa weren't and aren't good, while Liverpool pressed well, dominated the ball, and seemed in control, if customarily blunt. But Liverpool are rarely actually in control.

Thankfully, Liverpool realized the need to up the pressure in the second half. And Daniel Sturridge came to life accordingly, with important cameos from Milner and Coutinho. Milner provided a delightful chip into the space for Sturridge to jaw-droppingly volley in the 59th; a one-two with Coutinho after Sturridge pounced on a Villa mistake, featuring a delightful back heel to put Sturridge through, Sturridge smartly continuing his run into the box and angling a right-footed finish past Guzan.

But because Liverpool is still Liverpool, Villa reduced arrears not long after Liverpool took a two-goal lead. Both times. Both scored by Gestede, both goals from crosses, both crosses from Villa's fullbacks, both Liverpool's left- and right-sided center-backs embarrassed in the process. Can completely lost Gestede on Hutton's low cross in the 66th, allowing a tap-in. Five minutes later, Gestede absolutely trucked Sakho to reach Amavi's deep cross, hammering an unstoppable header over Mignolet.

12 minutes, four goals, two for each side. It wasn't quite 2013-14's free-scoring chaos, but it brought back memories.

Thankfully, Liverpool sorted themselves out after conceding that second, led by Lucas seemingly everywhere in Liverpool's half. Villa had more possession, Liverpool sat deeper, but the away side were limited to a Richards set play half-chance over the final 20 minutes, while three mistakes from Villa when pressed by Liverpool's attackers should have led to a fourth home goal. But Ings saw his shot blocked, Sturridge had one blocked while Guzan smartly saved the other. Adding a fourth on the counter, thanks to pressing, really would have brought back memories of 2013-14.

No matter. Liverpool held on, Liverpool won its first league match since August 17, Liverpool scored three goals for the first time since February. Liverpool beat Aston Villa at Anfield for the first time since 2010. Sure, Aston Villa weren't very good, but some not-very-good Aston Villa teams have taken points off of better Liverpool teams in recent meetings.

Today wasn't all ills cured, all evil exorcised. There are still issues up front, and there are certainly still issues at the back. But it was better, mainly because Sturridge, but also because of Danny Ings, also because of a more cohesive midfield, with Coutinho slightly deeper and more creative, with Milner more influential, with one of Lucas' best games since Rodgers became manager. It wasn't a dire, dreary, death-warmed-over 1-0, 1-1, or 0-1. For a change.

There's still a long way to go before Liverpool reach where Liverpool need to be. There's still a long way to go for Rodgers to earn a reprieve. Liverpool will have to do it against much better opposition; after Sion in the Europa League on Thursday, it's going to get a lot harder: a Merseyside derby, an international break, a resurgent Tottenham.

But today was a start.

25 September 2015

Liverpool v Aston Villa 09.26.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Villa (n; FA Cup) 04.19.15
2-0 Liverpool (a) 01.17.15
0-1 Villa (h) 09.13.14
2-2 (h) 01.18.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Carlisle aet (h) [3-2 pens]; 1-1 Norwich (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Villa: 1-0 Birmingham (h); 0-1 West Brom (h); 2-3 Leicester (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 2; Coutinho, Ings 1
Villa: Sinclair 2; Gil, Gestede, Grealish 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Clyne Milner Lucas Moreno
Sturridge Ings

It's match #3 in Liverpool's crucial four-match home stretch. Maybe they'll finally win one of them in 90 minutes.

Liverpool aren't helped by the fact that injuries are piling up. Benteke, Firmino, and Lovren join Henderson on the sidelines, the former out for at least another week with a hamstring problem, the latter two probably out as long as Liverpool's captain, for the next six-to-eight weeks.

Nonetheless, it's hard to see Liverpool deviating from the three-at-the-back system used in the last two matches. Because, even though Liverpool continue to disappoint, they have been marginally better in this system. No matter the opposition – and Liverpool's two opponents haven't been impressive, to say the least – 70 shots over 210 minutes combined is better than what we saw before. Even if, say, 55-60 of those shots didn't really trouble the opposition.

There seem to be two possible variations to the formation: 3-5-2, with Sturridge and Ings up front, or 3-4-2-1, with Coutinho and Lallana behind Sturridge as a lone striker. I'd prefer the former, simply because Liverpool look more dangerous with two up top and Sturridge is better with a strike partner, but Rodgers may decide to have more bodies in midfield considering Villa's likely 4-3-3 formation. Not that Coutinho and Lallana do much effective tracking back, mind.

Maybe Liverpool revert to 4-3-3 or a 4-diamond-2, with Can moving back into midfield. Maybe Allen keeps his place ahead of Lucas in the above formation. But those possibilities seem far less likely. Three at the back seems Rodgers' safety net, just as it was during the one reasonably decent run of form last season. And Liverpool very much need a safety net at the moment.

Standing in Liverpool's way? Tim Sherwood. Sigh. And Aston Villa, a side that routinely foils Liverpool, no matter their manager or each's respective form.

Because, so far, Aston Villa are one of the few sides that actually look worse than Liverpool. They earned a narrow, unimpressive victory in the League Cup on Tuesday, but haven't won a league match since opening day, since barely beating Bournemouth (sound familiar?). That was the only league match Villa have kept a clean sheet in, conceding twice against Palace and Sunderland, thrice against Leicester, and once against fellow strugglers West Brom.

With Agbonlahor absent (as is Gary Gardner and Jonas Okore), Sherwood will have to start either Scott Sinclair or Rudy Gestede as the main striker. Sinclair could be useful up front on the counter, but knowing Liverpool's weaknesses, I'd expect it to be Gestede, flanked by Sinclair and Jack Grealish, a front three that looks an awful lot like the Benteke-Agbonlahor-Weimann trio which routinely caused Liverpool problems in recent seasons.

Otherwise, their lineup seems fairly predictable, with a probable XI of Guzan; Bacuna, Richards, Lescott, Amavi; Westwood, Sanchez, Gil; Sinclair, Gestede, Grealish. Midfielder Idrissa Gueye and winger Adama Traore are both in contention, both available after respective from injuries, but Sherwood seems likely to stick with the devil he knows.

Regardless, Villa are still Villa and Liverpool are still Liverpool. And Villa have taken points off of Liverpool at Anfield in each of the last four seasons, winning twice and drawing twice since 2011-12.

That's unacceptable tomorrow, not with Liverpool still winless since August 17 – needing penalties to advance past Carlisle doesn't count as a win; that match finished level. Not with Liverpool winless in its last four league matches; Liverpool haven't failed to win five consecutive league matches since Rodgers' first five league matches. That's what this has come to. A Liverpool side as bad and broken as the one Rodgers inherited in 2012.

The clamor surrounding Brendan Rodgers is already at fever pitch. Another failure tomorrow is out of the question. Liverpool simply must win.

22 September 2015

Liverpool v Carlisle 09.23.15

3pm ET, not live on TV in the US. Delayed on BeIN Sport at 8pm Thursday ET and on LFCTV for subscribers after midnight UK time (I think).

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a; FA Cup) 01.07.89
3-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.30.77
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.12.75
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.05.74

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Norwich (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a); 1-3 United (a)
Carlisle: 2-2 York (a); 2-1 Dag & Red (h); 3-2 Barnet (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: n/a
Carlisle: 2-1 QPR (a); 3-1 Chesterfield aet (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Benteke 2; Coutinho, Ings, Lallana 1
Carlisle: Ibehre 10; Asamoah, Miller 3; Archibald-Henville, Balanta, Kennedy, Osei, Thompson, Wyke 1

Referee: Andrew Madley

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Toure Lovren
Clyne Rossiter Milner Ibe
Origi Ings

As per usual in cup competition, the main question for Liverpool is how many changes: can Liverpool strike a balance between needing to rest players, needing to give youngsters and second-stringers a chance, and needing to win a match for the first time in five weeks.

The above guess at a line-up probably takes rotation too far. It's almost entirely second-string, with seven players signed this summer, two Academy graduates, and two out-of-favor defenders. Jordon Ibe would be the longest-tenured Liverpool player in that XI, and that could well be a recipe for disaster in the League Cup. See: Northampton Town, Notts County, Middlesbrough, etc. But Liverpool played two matches last week, Liverpool play two matches this week, and Liverpool will play two matches next week. You'd think there have to be a fair few changes.

The above guess at a line-up also assumes that Liverpool will persist with the 3-4-1-2 that we saw against Norwich. Because, well, it was the first time in a month that Liverpool's actually looked almost competent at the football. We could just as easily see a return to the 4-3-3, something like Bogdan; Clyne, Toure, Lovren, Gomez; Milner, Rossiter, Lallana; Ibe, Ings, Firmino. Or a mostly full-strength lineup because Liverpool (and Rodgers) are under enough pressure, rotation and fitness be damned.

Here's my logic for the above guesses:

• Goalkeeper: Seems like Liverpool have to give Bogdan a first appearance, but Rodgers may want to stick with Mignolet to quickly put Sunday's error in the past.

• Center-backs: Lovren will come back into the side, Gomez will come back into the side, and Rodgers will probably spell Skrtel in favor of Toure.

• Wing-backs: Moreno's started consecutive matches after rarely appearing to start the season. Gomez's will probably be needed at center-back. So Clyne probably has to play, with Ibe on the opposite flank. I guess Lallana's an option at wing-back, but that rarely worked last season. Jose Enrique is still not a thing that exists.

• Midfield: Henderson and Allen are injured, I suspect Lucas can't play two matches in a week anymore, Emre Can is the only outfield player to feature in all seven matches this season. Milner could be rested as well, but he sat out Liverpool's Europa League match last Thursday, needs redemption after a mediocre – at best – performance on Sunday, and Liverpool need at least a couple of experienced players. So he'll probably join Rossiter in the middle, but if Liverpool want to go full youth, Chirivella's also an option.

• Attacking midfield: PLAY FIRMINO CENTRALLY.

• Strikers: Benteke's injured and I'm terrified of starting Sturridge twice in four days so soon after returning. Although I wouldn't be surprised to see him as a substitute late on.

The last time Carlisle lost a match in the league or League Cup – not counting an 0-1 defeat in the Football League Trophy with a wholly changed side – was the same weekend that Liverpool last won a match: three wins and two draws in the league over the last month, and the surprising 2-1 win at QPR which got them to this stage of the competition.

That they're currently 10th in League Two is something of a lie, there solely on goal difference, behind the league leaders by just four points, with just seven points separating 1st and 15th.

I couldn't possibly guess Carlisle's XI or formation, but will note they played 4-4-2 in their last match at York: Gillespie; Miller, Raynes, Archibald-Henville, Grainger; Joyce, Sweeney, Kennedy, Dicker; Iberhe, Gilliead. According to Transfer Markt, they've switched between 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 this season, using both formations equally regularly.

Jabo Ibehre, a 32-year-old playing for his ninth lower-league team over his 15-year career, has 10 goals in 10 games this season. He's scored more than 10 goals in a season just once: for League One Walsall in 2008-09. To say he's on a bit of a hot streak is an understatement. Just in time to face a Liverpool side renowned for conceding early and often, in the most unlikely and hilarious ways. Hurrah. Also, there's one familiar name in Carlisle's squad: left-back Danny Grainger, a player that Liverpool faced in Rodgers' first season, in both legs of the Europa League qualifiers against Hearts.

No matter how many changes Liverpool make to the XI, we need to see a response to the trauma of the last month. We need to see individual players actually playing to the levels we know they can reach, we need to see some semblance of a team. Yes, this is still the League Cup, the redheaded stepchild of competitions, but it has been 36 days since Liverpool last won a match. You can't go an hour without reading yet another RODGERS OUT article online.

There have only been seven matches, but this season's quickly slipping out of hand already. Time to stop the rot.

Meta: There almost certainly won't be a match review because it's not on television in the US and I won't have access to a DVR. And there most likely won't be a match infographic either, because a) I probably won't see the match and b) even though Who Scored now has the necessary stats for the League and FA Cups, I doubt I'll want to put that amount of effort into a third-round League Cup match. I'm sorry I'm a lazy man and that I've spoiled you.

21 September 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Norwich

Previous Match Infographics: Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Rather than complaining about Liverpool's attack – which actually kinda sorta almost was better! – in general for the nth consecutive match, I'd rather focus on a single part of that attack, one which had played far too large a role in determining the outcome of Liverpool's attacks.

We might have to get the shock collar out of storage.

You may notice the insanely large shot total which Coutinho accumulated in the above graphic. 10. Ten shots. Two on-target, four off, four blocked. Yesterday, Coutinho took three more shots than Norwich took in total.

Ten shots is the most that Coutinho's ever taken in a Liverpool match. He took eight against Bournemouth last month, nine in the 0-0 at West Brom last season, eight in 4-1 against West Ham in 2013-14, and nine in 4-0 against Fulham in 2013-14. In both 2013-14 matches, he was still out-shot by Luis Suarez; that's how dominant Liverpool's attack was that season.

So, Coutinho putting up eight or more shots happened twice in almost two full seasons, and it's now happened three times during this dismal 12-match run starting last April. Liverpool's results in those three matches? 0-0, 1-0, and 1-1. Of the 27 shots he's taken in those three matches, Coutinho has put just four shots on-target. Four. Of 27. And failed to score.

His shooting through the first six matches – well, five because of his red card against West Ham – has left something to be desired.

Is this bad? This is probably bad.

Six on-target, including one goal; 12 off-target, including one off of the woodwork; and 10 blocked. Eight in the Danger Zone, six from wide box areas, and 14 – 50% of his shots! – from outside the box. Coutinho's 28 shots account for 33% of Liverpool's total shots – nearly a third – and he's missed almost a match and a half of Liverpool's six.

It didn't used to be like this.

• Coutinho last season: 3.3 shots p90, 1.9 KP p90
• Coutinho this season: 6.3 shots p90, 0.7 KP p90

Yes, yes, it's only six games into the season, Coutinho's only played in five, but so far he's taking almost double the amount of shots, but providing fewer than half the amount of key passes. Not only is Coutinho wasting Liverpool's possession in the final third with errant, unlikely shots, but if Coutinho's taking the shot, Coutinho's not creating chances. And that's where he's far more valuable.

Coutinho was Liverpool's third-most creative player last season; only Sterling and Gerrard played more key passes per 90. In 2013-14, he was second, behind only Suarez. This season? He's 10th – behind Moreno, Firmino, Milner, Lallana, Lucas, Benteke, Ings, Can, and Ibe. And I'm not even counting Origi, Sturridge, or Sakho, who have all played 90 minutes or less.

Alberto Moreno created more chances yesterday than Coutinho has in five league matches this season. In fact, Moreno created twice as many chances yesterday as Coutinho has this season. Yikes.

Granted, it's not as if Liverpool have been overflowing with players willing to shoot or capable of shooting all that often this season. Coutinho has necessarily had to pick up that slack, especially in the first couple of matches. But Liverpool played with two strikers for slightly more than an hour yesterday. Coutinho still took double the amount of shots than Ings, Sturridge, and Benteke combined. His lone key pass was pushing the ball wide to Moreno, who cut inside and hammered a shot at Ruddy.

There have been multiple issues, discussed at length, in Liverpool's attack. But one step towards fixing those issues seems to be having the scorers shoot and the creators create.

As per usual, it's not as if Liverpool have been much better at the other end of the pitch. But yesterday's goal continued a worrying trend of Liverpool players' involvement in opposition goals.

Four of the eight Liverpool goals conceded this season have had a Liverpool player's touch set up the opposition goal. Mignolet punching to Martin yesterday, Can's attempted tackle falling to Jussie against Bordeaux, Lovren's attempted clearance deflecting off Moreno for Sakho against West Ham, and Clyne's interception deflecting off Lucas to step up Noble against West Ham. That's an egregious amount of both individual mistakes and unfortunate bounces.

In addition, despite keeping clean sheets from the first three matches, Liverpool haven't been great at preventing threatening shots or saving those threatening shots.

37.9% of all shots allowed have come inside the Danger Zone (the middle of the penalty box). Seven goals, 10 off-target shots, four shots blocked, and just four on-target shots saved. For comparison, just 34.1% of Liverpool's shots in the league (29 of 85) have come in the Danger Zone, leading to two of Liverpool four goals. All seven goals conceded have come from the Danger Zone. At least, other than that – other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? – Liverpool have done well to deny wide box shots and force their opponents into a fairly high percentage of difficult long range shots, and they've conceded no goals from those two zone. Still, those Danger Zone shots…

But yesterday was better. Yes, yes, Norwich, but Liverpool allowed just two Danger Zone shots, both coming from Liverpool errors. One, from Sakho, somehow wasn't an actual Opta-defined error, ending with an excellent Mignolet save. The other, from Mignolet, was most certainly an error, ending with Norwich's goal. That's at least a modicum of progress, at least compared to the matches against West Ham and United.

Liverpool's attack, probably unsurprisingly, has been slow to take shape, diabolically bad last season and full of new players this season. Liverpool's defense, probably unsurprisingly, has been both unlucky and prone to individual mistakes.

These are reparable problems. Admittedly, they're reparable problems we've been complaining about for a full calendar, but nonetheless, Liverpool do seem to have the potential to fix them. And, as infuriating as it was, and as little margin for error Liverpool currently have, yesterday was at least a small first step.

20 September 2015

Liverpool 1-1 Norwich

Ings 48'
Martin 61'

I wrote this match review almost four years ago. It wasn't any better then. An already frustrating season, a bunch of shots but just one goal, a keeper error equalizer around the hour mark, an inability to reclaim the lead despite 30 minutes of pressure.

It's déjà vu all over again.

Sure, Liverpool played better than we've seen for the majority of the season. Liverpool were at home, Liverpool were against Norwich. But it wasn't good enough, and Liverpool still screwed it up, because Liverpool still couldn't finish enough of their chances, and Liverpool again conceded an unnecessary set play goal. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Sturridge's return made Liverpool better, having a strike partner made Benteke better. The switch to 3-4-1-2 made Liverpool better. Sakho and Moreno back in the side made Liverpool better. It was more than a bit frustrating at the beginning – Liverpool's midfield struggled to assert control, Liverpool's forwards were close but not quite close enough to connecting, Liverpool still failed to create the amount of chances you'd expect from the amount of possession – but there was only one team in the match in the opening half.

Those are the sort of foibles you'd expect from an unfamiliar XI in a new formation, but Liverpool and Rodgers don't have enough credit in the bank to have earned much patience.

That Benteke had to go off with a tight hamstring at halftime caused concerns, but it was his replacement who opened the scoring: Lucas pressing Norwich into a mistake in their own half, Moreno's deft pass over the back line, Ings' lovely control and shot between Ruddy's legs. Finally, the breakthrough, the moment Liverpool needed to push on in this match and revive the already flagging season.

Not quite. Sturridge had a fierce shot blocked, Coutinho put two off-target, and Norwich settled down after a short-lived tilt. And, because Liverpool, Norwich's first corner led to Norwich's first shot inside Liverpool's box, which was Norwich's first shot on-target. And Norwich's equalizer. Mignolet charged out to punch Brady's cross – something he did to excellent effect against Bordeaux, something he's gotten better at since returning to the side last December – and wholly failed, pushing it straight to an open Russell Martin, the center-back who also happens to be Norwich's top scorer. Control, flick, goal. Sigh.

At least it didn't get worse? Liverpool should have been behind less than five minutes later, when Sakho made his only mistake of the match, Redmond charged down Liverpool's left, and both Skrtel and Can failed to intercept the low cross. Somehow, Mignolet saved Jarvis' point-blank shot. A small bit of redemption, but his mistake's going to last a lot longer in the memory.

Then, the usual "flurry" without reward. Lallana replacing Sturridge, Firmino replacing Lucas, a switch to 4-3-3. Good efforts from Firmino and Moreno denied by Ruddy; Coutinho released on the break, but shooting too close to Norwich's keeper; Lallana and Ings nearly dancing through the box, but the latter unable to take the shot after rounding Ruddy; Lallana's half-volley nearly-but-not-quite redirected on goal by Can. Another Liverpool failure, when there have already been too many failures this season, and there's already next to no room for error.

Liverpool haven't scored twice in a match since May 2nd, against relegated QPR, 11 matches ago.

Liverpool haven't scored three in a match since February 10th, against Tottenham, 27 matches ago.

Liverpool have dropped 17 points after scoring first since the start of last season – draws against Everton, Arsenal, Leicester, and now Norwich; losses against Palace (twice) and Chelsea – and that doesn't include cup matches against Boro, Ludogorets, Villa, and Bordeaux.

So, Liverpool still can't score, and even when they do, Liverpool often can't hold onto a lead. No matter if Rodgers' line-up and in-game decisions all seemed sound today, that's still a recipe for the manager getting fired. Were this a fluke, a one-off, then fine, take the point, grumble, and move on. But it's hard to call it a fluke when we've suffered through this movie for a full calendar year. This was what doomed the aforementioned 2011-12 campaign, and we at least had the consolation of cup runs then. Now, we're in season two of this nonsense.

If Liverpool continue to play like that, there's a reasonable chance things will improve. Sakho – the terrifying moment aside – and Moreno improved the side, Sturridge's return will make a world of difference, Firmino and Ings both had encouraging cameos when played in central positions. Ings' workrate terrorized Norwich's defense; Sturridge is going to adore playing with him. But it's hard to look ahead with any optimism when the past has been so dire and the present remains dire.

Liverpool need improvement now. Rodgers needs improvement now. Neither have the time to slowly improve, especially not with the already furious, divided fan base. The situation's quickly becoming untenable, if it's not already.

This four-match home run was supposed to be the fresh start everyone needed. And Liverpool's already fallen at the first hurdle.

19 September 2015

Liverpool v Norwich 09.20.15

11am ET, live in the US on USA Network

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (a) 04.20.14
5-1 Liverpool (h) 12.04.13
5-0 Liverpool (h) 01.19.13
5-2 Liverpool (a) 09.29.12

Last matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Bordeaux (a); 1-3 United (a); 0-3 West Ham (h)
Norwich: 3-1 Bournemouth (h); 0-3 Southampton (a); 2-1 Rotherham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 2; Coutinho 1
Norwich: Martin, Redmond 2; Hoolahan, Jarvis, Jerome, Whitaker 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Skrtel Sakho Moreno
Milner Can
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

This match marks a new beginning, the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end.

Liverpool's next four matches are at home. Liverpool's next four matches are against Norwich, Carlisle, Aston Villa, and FC Sion. We're all aware that Liverpool have the potential to lose any match against any opponent on any day, and usually in the most comical fashion possible, but those are four winnable matches, especially considering what Liverpool's fixture list has looked like so far.

Jordan Henderson will be out for a couple of months after breaking a metatarsal in training yesterday – and I doubt I need emphasize how much of a loss that'll be – but Daniel Sturridge is back in training and Joe Allen is almost as close to returning. Given all that's come before, there's no way Sturridge will start his first match back, but he'll be on the bench, and I'll be surprised if he doesn't make an appearance.

But even more important than returning players is Liverpool learning their lessons from recent disappointments, especially the 0-3 loss to West Ham. Sakho and Moreno have to start after their performances against Bordeaux. As per usual, the less said about Lovren, the better. Joe Gomez – the only outfield player to start in all six of Liverpool's matches – has played above expectations, but that loss to West Ham demonstrated his weaknesses when Liverpool dominate possession; Moreno is much more capable of adding width in the opposition half, something Liverpool will almost certainly need tomorrow.

And, to the surprise of no one, Liverpool need more bodies in attack, more support for their striker(s). 4-2-3-1 has rarely worked under Rodgers, but you'd have to think that a line of Lallana-Firmino-Coutinho will provide Benteke with more help than we've seen from the 4-3-3, with the adding bonus of getting Firmino into a central role.

Maybe Liverpool stick with the 3-4-2-1 we saw at Bordeaux, with Benteke, Milner, Skrtel, and Clyne replacing Origi, Rossiter, Toure, and Ibe. Maybe it becomes a 3-5-2. Maybe Liverpool persist with the 4-3-3, dropping Coutinho in midfield with Lallana and Firmino on the "flanks." Maybe Liverpool persist with the same 4-3-3 seen at United, seen for the majority of matches in this short season. But I truly think that 4-2-3-1 provides Liverpool with its best chance for success against tomorrow's opposition. It can't get worse, can it?

After five matches, Norwich are level on points with Liverpool: two wins, one draw, and two losses. But where Liverpool have scored just three goals, Norwich have eight, including 3-1 wins over both Bournemouth (a team that Liverpool scored a single offside goal against) and Sunderland. However, they've yet to keep a clean sheet this season, conceding once in four games (including the League Cup), and three goals in two others. Of course, it'd be eminently fitting if that first clean sheet came at Anfield.

Norwich will play 4-2-3-1, often shifting into a 4-4-1-1 tomorrow, an XI of Ruddy; Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Brady; Tettey, Howson; Redmond, Hoolahan, Jarvis; Jerome. Nathan Redmond, still only 21, is Norwich's most dangerous player, with two goals and an assist so far this season, both providing width and cutting in down the right, a constant danger on the counter-attack. Hoolahan's also flourished in a free role behind the main striker, back in favor since Alex Neil became manager in January.

As I'm sure you'll remember, Norwich have been Liverpool's favorite opponent over the last few seasons, scoring at least three goals in each of the last five meetings. As I'm sure you'll remember, that had a lot to do with Luis Suarez; it just won't feel right facing the Canaries without the Uruguayan in the lineup.

It's a scary, brave new world. And Liverpool assuredly have to be brave tomorrow.

18 September 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Bordeaux

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

As always for Europa League matches, all data from WhoScored.

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

So, do we look at the match in isolation, or in the context of the last six-12-18-36 months?

If in isolation, then okay, that was acceptable. It certainly wasn't great, but away matches in Europe are always a difficult proposition, that was a (necessarily) much-changed and incredibly young side – with an average age of 21.7 after Chirivella came on for Toure in the 28th minute – and a point will often do away from home in the group stage. Coutinho and Mignolet were the only two players in the starting XI who'd made more than 46 appearances for Liverpool. The seven players on Liverpool's bench had made all of seven appearances: five by Firmino, two by Ings, both signed this summer. Gomez, Chirivella, and Rossiter are 18, Ibe is 19, Origi is 20, Emre Can's 21. Coutinho, Liverpool's most experienced player, is all of 23.

It was an indifferent performance by an unfamiliar and exceptionally young team, away from home, with one good goal and one bad concession. So be it. It's still early, it's good to see all those kids get chances. Take the point and move on.

But if you're looking at it in the context of all that's come before, well, we've got some concerns. It may have been a very different Liverpool side than we saw in the first five league matches, but was still a team with the same problems we saw in the first five league matches, and the same problems we've often seen from Rodgers' sides in Europe.

The criticism, once again, falls mainly on the attack. Because, once again, there was no control to proceedings and no pattern of play. Once again, Liverpool took a paltry amount of shots: just 10, with six of those from outside the box. Once again, Liverpool needed an individual moment of brilliance to score: Lallana's Suarez-esque touch through a defender to break into the box before curling a low shot past the keeper. Liverpool's other best chances to score? More individual brilliance: Ings' wonderful sombrero from a pass over the top, only for Carrasso to make a smart save, and Coutinho cannoning a shot off the woodwork from 25 yards.

Of Liverpool's four (four!) goals scored this season, three have been individual moments of brilliance – one each from Coutinho, Benteke, and Lallana – and one which should have been called offside. That's. Not. Good.

If Liverpool hold on after finally taking the lead, Rodgers gets credit for grinding out a difficult away match with a team full of kids. But, because Liverpool, Liverpool don't hold on, increasingly pushed back after scoring, trying to shell to keep their narrow lead, and ultimately conceding when Bordeaux passed around and through from front to back, ending with Crivelli bafflingly allowed to play keepy-up in front of Gomez and Can before Can's attempted tackle somehow presented Jussie with an open shot from 12 yards.

It certainly wasn't Liverpool's best defensive performance of the season – they only allowed only nine shots, but eight of them came in the danger zone – but for the most part, Liverpool's defense seemed secure. It usually is when Liverpool play three at the back, and it was especially secure on Sakho's side of the pitch. But one bad moment by a 21-year-old midfielder playing center-back and an 18-year-old playing in his third position of the season, and one unlucky bounce of the ball, and we're back to square one. Again, this may be familiar.

Sakho played well, and demonstrably proved he needs to be starting ahead of Lovren. As did Moreno. It is probably not coincidence that none of Bordeaux's nine shots came from the left side of Liverpool's defense. Mignolet did well to punch clear multiple crosses, and made a couple of crucial saves. Both Rossiter and Chirivella encouragingly grew into the game, and earned further chances. Coutinho, Lallana, and Ings each had a few reassuring moments, but all three struggled to cohesively link with their teammates in attack. The less said about Ibe and Origi – again, just 19 and 20 respectively – the better.

Liverpool have now played 21 European matches under Brendan Rodgers, although four were walkover qualifiers in the 2012-13 Europa League. Of the 17 in the competition proper, I can think of two where Liverpool actually played well: the insane 5-3 at BSC Young Boys and the 3-1 win over Zenit, when Suarez nearly hauled Liverpool back from an 0-3 aggregate deficit to progress. Both of those matches came in Rodgers' first season.

Liverpool's record in those 17 matches? 7W-4D-6L, an average of 1.47 points per match, an average of 1.24 goals per game, heavily boosted by the five at Young Boys. In the nine matches since that 3-1 win over Zenit, Liverpool have scored more than a single goal just twice: home and away against powerhouse Ludogorets last season. Liverpool's European record away from home? 2W-2D-5L: eight points from nine matches, with Liverpool scoring all of nine goals, more than half in that single match at Young Boys. I'm not sure whether Rodgers doesn't value Europe as much as the league or whether Rodgers can't figure out Europe's often cagey affairs, but Liverpool's continuing disappointments in continental competition remain frustrating. But a lot about Liverpool remains frustrating.

This Bordeaux side, like Basel and Ludogorets and Besiktas last season, like Udinese and Anzhi in 2012-13, is nowhere close to a juggernaut, finishing sixth in Ligue 1 last season, currently sitting 12th in that competition. A mid-table French side, against what increasingly appears to be a mid-table English side. And, obviously, Liverpool should aspire to better than that; fat, drunk, and mid-table is no way to go through life, son.

But, again, a 1-1 draw away from home in Europe to begin the group stage certainly isn't the worst result in the world. Had Liverpool been able to hold onto the 1-0 win, it's 2012-13 at Udinese, a reasonable win against a similar level of opposition, a win which cemented progression to the next round. But, of course, Liverpool didn't hold on to win. And, regardless, this Liverpool should be better than the version from Rodgers' first season, no matter how young yesterday's side was, no matter how many players were missing, no matter how many new players Liverpool have in the squad.

And that's the problem. This is Brendan Rodgers' fourth season. Aside from the awesome aberration that was 2013-14, we've seen three Year Zeros. We've seen similarly disappointing performances in each of those three seasons. We've seen similarly disappointing performances throughout the majority of this short season so far. We've seen this movie before.

And that's why – even if the result's acceptable, and most of us probably would've taken it before kickoff – you can't help but put yesterday's performance within the overwhelming context that we've consistently seen.

16 September 2015

Liverpool at Bordeaux 09.17.15

1pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Head-to-head meetings:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 10.31.06
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.18.06

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 United (a); 0-3 West Ham (h); 0-0 Arsenal (a)
Bordeaux: 2-2 PSG (a); 2-0 Nantes (h); 1-2 Kairat (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: n/a
Bordeaux: 3-0 AEK Lamaca (h), 1-0 AEK Lamaca (a); 1-0 Kairat (h); 1-2 Kairat (a)

Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP)

Guess at a line-up:
Gomez Toure Sakho Moreno
Can Rossiter
Ibe Firmino Coutinho

There have been a few exceptions – memorably, Real Madrid last season, a handful of Europa League games in his first season – but for the most part, Brendan Rodgers has named surprisingly strong lineups in cup competition throughout his first three seasons.

And I had assumed that'd pretty much be the case tomorrow. Sure, there'd be a few necessary changes, but we'd also get a fair amount of regulars, especially in attack, which continues to misfire and continues to need time to adapt to all the new players.

That apparently won't be the case. Benteke, Milner, Lucas, Lovren, Skrtel, and Clyne have all stayed behind. I guess I'm most surprised about Benteke, for the aforementioned attacking reasons.

With the above players absent, Liverpool's midfield and defense sees rather set it stone. Bogdan or Mignolet could start in goal, but the back four seemingly has to be Gomez, Toure, Sakho, Moreno. Without Milner and Lucas, and with Allen and Henderson injured, Can and Rossiter are the only available midfielders, although if Liverpool persist with the familiar 4-3-3, we've seen Coutinho capable of playing in the center.

But it's not as if Liverpool are lacking in options in attack. Ings, Origi, or Firmino could start up front. Ibe, Firmino, Coutinho, Lallana, and Origi are all potential wide players, even if it's not the preferred position for four of those five. I'd prefer to not see squad pegs crammed into round holes on the flanks, and it seems as if the players available are much more suited to 4-2-3-1 than 4-3-3. Most notably, if Firmino plays – which there's no guarantee of – play him centrally; he's been wasted and invisible on the wing so far.

As for Liverpool's opponents? Your guess is as good as mine. They're 12th in Ligue 1, starting the season with a win, a loss, and three draws. But their last draw, at PSG last Friday, was the first time any team's prevented PSG from taking all three points this season.

If Bordeaux keep the same XI from the match against PSG – which, admittedly, probably won't happen – it'd be Carrasso; Guilbert, Pablo, Pallois, Poundje; Traore, Saivet; Biyogo Poko, Khazri, Maurice-Belay; Crivelli. Bordeaux's struggled with injury problems so far this season: Jaroslav Plasil, Diego Contento, Cheick Diabate, and Gregory Sertic, among others. I'd expect Clement Chantome – one of the few Bordeaux players I'm familiar with! – to return to midfield. Wahbi Khazri has been Bordeaux's most important player so far this season, top scorer with three goals, impressive in a #10 role.

For a bit more information, this from This is Anfield is helpful, as is this quick rundown of Bordeaux's squad from the Echo.

To put it bluntly, Liverpool have been terrible in Europe under Rodgers. Not counting Europa League qualifiers against the well-overmatched Gomel and Hearts in Rodgers' first season, Liverpool have won just two away matches in Europe since 2012-13: the wild, wacky 5-3 at BSC Young Boys and a narrow 1-0 at Udinese. Otherwise? 0-1 at Anzhi, 0-2 at Zenit, 0-1 at Basel, 0-1 at Real Madrid, 2-2 at Ludogorets, and 0-1 at Besiktas. Six matches, two goals, both at Ludogorets last season.

Liverpool are going to need to be a lot better than that to get a result tomorrow. And Brendan Rodgers very much needs a result tomorrow.

Meta: Like last season, there won't be immediate match reviews for the Europa League, but there will be match infographics the next day.

14 September 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-3 Manchester Utd

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

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

Another game, another disappointment.

United weren't impressive in almost any sense of the word, but United were better: comfortably in control in midfield, pressing Liverpool into mistakes at Liverpool's end of the pitch in the first half, defending resolutely on the flanks to keep Liverpool from entering the final third (those clusters of tackles and interceptions!), and actually converting a couple of their few-and-far-between chances: one set play, one deserved penalty, one on the counter. One of the drearier United sides I've seen, one without a recognized striker until a 19-year-old making his debut came on as a substitute, were definitively better than Liverpool were.

We can complain about Liverpool's temerity, an inability to even attempt to take the game to underwhelming opposition until falling behind – yet again! – in what's supposed to be the country's most contentious derby.

We can complain about Liverpool's tactical choices: Firmino and Ings basically as wing-backs in the first half, a reliance on long balls to an isolated Benteke, nonexistent pressing despite two central midfielders and two "wide forwards" more than capable of doing so, etc. We can complain about the general playing style, we can complain about the substitutions. And we can certainly complain about the result: Liverpool's seventh league loss in the last 14 league matches.

Let's just complain about another insipid attacking performance instead.

Liverpool's attack has been dire since the start of last season, but the rot's really set in over the last 14 matches, since the 1-2 home loss against Manchester United on March 22, which ended Liverpool's 13-match unbeaten streak in the league and was the beginning of the end for Liverpool's experiment with the 3-4-2-1.

Since then: 12 goals scored, 24 goals conceded, 4W-3D-7L, an average of 1.07 points per game. Admittedly, it hasn't been the easiest run – away at Arsenal twice, home and away against United, away at Stoke twice, away at Chelsea – but that's still relegation-level form.

The sad thing is, Liverpool have still out-shot their opponents over that spell, and created more chances than their opponents over that spell. 201 shots for, 157 shots against. 143 key passes for, 110 against.

Here's the problem:

8.16% goal conversion! Eight. Point. One. Six. One goal for every 12.26 on- or off-target shots.

Just the 10% better shot accuracy from Liverpool's opponents, and the better-than-double goal conversion percentage, then.

Shot location's been a problem, but it's certainly not the root cause. And blocked shots have been a problem – Liverpool had 54 shots blocked during this span, while Liverpool have blocked 35 opposition shots – but, again, it's a lesser concern.

Liverpool just don't have anyone capable of converting on anywhere remotely near a regular basis. Not Sterling, Coutinho, Lambert, Balotelli, etc last season, not Benteke et al (yet) this season.

During this stretch, Liverpool have played five different formations, not counting the changes necessarily made when reduced to ten men in two of those matches. It's mostly been 4-3-3, but we've also seen 3-4-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, and 4-3-1-2 with no strikers. And for the most part, Liverpool have struggled to conjure any competent attack no matter the set-up.

During this stretch, we've seen a match and a half where Liverpool actually played well: the 1-1 draw at an already-clinched-the-league-and-coasting Chelsea last May, and the first half at Arsenal last month – both matches where Liverpool remained goal shy but were strong enough in other areas to compensate. Otherwise, we've seen "I guess that'll do" (2-0 Newcastle, 1-0 at Stoke), "not good but hey they won" (2-1 QPR, 1-0 Bournemouth), and "good lord, won't someone please think of the children!" (1-4 Arsenal, 1-3 Palace, 1-6 Stoke, 0-3 West Ham, 1-3 United).

Of course, there are the other problems than the attack – Skrtel and Lovren in defense (see these two tweets from Dan Kennett, for starters), an often unbalanced and goal-shy midfield, the need to bed in multiple new players after needing to do the same last season, etc – but a consistently embarrassing attack since the sale of Luis Suarez and the constant injuries of Daniel Sturridge is the ne plus ultra of Liverpool woes.

And that's after spending somewhere in the realm of £140m on eight attackers in the last 16 months. Lambert, Lallana, Markovic, Origi, Balotelli, Ings, Firmino, and Benteke. Sure, four of those players have only been available for five matches, but last summer's signings contributed a grand total of 10 league goals (five from Lallana). And three of those four attackers signed last summer (not counting Origi), all but Lallana, aren't even with the club this season: two loaned (and probably unlikely to return), one sold.

We've seemingly reached the point where we're throwing shit at the wall and hoping something sticks. In tactics, in formation, in transfers, in overall strategy. There has to be a grand plan behind the thought processes, but it's hard to see it. And you can blame FSG, Ayre, Rodgers, and the players. No one escapes criticism for the last 16 months we've endured.

Right now, Liverpool don't have the personnel to recreate their best form under Rodgers – direct fast-break counter-attacking – at least not with Sturridge out, but Liverpool also don't have the personnel to support their newest, shiniest, costliest attacker: no one making runs to support and/or get beyond Benteke, few if any natural wingers or above-average crossers.

And "just wait until Sturridge returns" certainly isn't sufficient. Liverpool shouldn't be, can't be reliant on a single injury-prone player, especially given the amount of money spent on other players and in other areas. Liverpool were missing more than a few first-team players on Saturday, but one of the richest teams in football – even if those richer are much, much richer – should be strong enough to survive some absentees.

We've haven't (yet) reached the depths of Hodgeball – a comparison I never thought I'd have to employ again – and five games (including two away at Arsenal and United) remains a pitifully small sample size, but Liverpool are certainly in a very, bad place right now, from top to bottom, from back to front. And Liverpool's manager is both the easiest scapegoat and seemingly the easiest to change.

12 September 2015

Liverpool 1-3 Manchester United

Blind 49'
Herrera 70' (pen)
Benteke 84'
Martial 86'

Once again, Liverpool get what Liverpool deserve.

Kyle Martino said it perfectly on NBC after the match. "Brendan Rodgers set up Liverpool to play against the ghost of Manchester United past." That's a perfect summation of today's proceedings.

We're all poorer for watching that first half. As against Arsenal, Liverpool sat back to defend, a firm line of four defenders protected by five midfielders. Ings and Firmino, a striker and a #10, were wing backs in all but name. But this Manchester United is not Arsenal, not on their best day. And especially not with Marouane Fellaini leading the line. This was a Manchester United almost, but not quite, as dire as Liverpool.

And it resulted in one of worst halves of football that I've ever seen. Two United shots, one Liverpool shot, none on-target for either side, none remotely threatening. Liverpool simply never looked like threatening, the "counter" routinely breaking down well before the final third, while the only chances United had came from Liverpool mistakes. It was 45 minutes of death warmed over. Which, to be fair, wasn't too far from what Rodgers seemingly intended.

Unfortunately, you can be more secure than a bank vault in open play, and still concede on a set play. Twice, in fact. With Liverpool's fullbacks – one of the few bright spots so far this season – at least initially at fault for both: Clyne's soft free kick on Young, Gomez's penalty on Herrera.

Liverpool's set play defending remains hilariously terrible, somehow continuing to find new ways to concede after more than a year of conceding in hilarious new ways. This time, no one picked up a wide open Blind on the edge of the area; sure, Schweinsteiger set a decent pick, but there should be at least one more player in position to get a block in, rather than seven or eight defenders stuck on their edge of their six-yard box. Meanwhile, Gomez's foul was an 18-year-old out-of-position full back getting done by a clever attacker when forced to defend with his weaker foot.

Shit happens. Which is why you can't solely rely on your defense keeping a clean sheet and "hoping for the best" in attack.

My favorite part of today's horror show was Liverpool persisting with its defensive 4-3-3 formation even after going two-down. Ibe replaced Firmino, Origi replaced Ings. Ibe made a difference, but Origi was a lesser version of Ings' "striker stuck on the wing." Liverpool's response was "eh, let's get some fresh legs on and maybe push the midfielders and wide players forward more." Fantastic. Brendan Rodgers really isn't helping himself.

Those changes made Liverpool marginally better in attack, but "marginally" better isn't anywhere near good enough when you're already behind and have nowhere to go but up. Benteke pulled one back with a stunning bicycle kick from a deflected cross in the 84th – one of the best goals you're ever likely to see – but it was little more than a consolation at that point, especially when Martial burnt Skrtel to a crisp two minutes later to restore the two-goal margin. Finally, at that point, Rodgers removed his defensive midfielder for another wide attacker (Moreno, who – I'm sure you're aware – is a left back). In the 87th minute. In a 1-3 match. I cannot sigh hard enough.

While we're here, we might as well get the excuses out of the way. It is still very in the season, a team full of new players in a new formation. As Bass Tuned To Red helpfully noted, none of Liverpool's top eight chance creators from last season – which, you'll remember was a pretty bad season – were available today. Liverpool will almost certainly look a much different side with Sturridge, Coutinho, and Henderson in the lineup. And, surprise of surprises, Liverpool weren't far off from scoring three or more: Blind clearing Skrtel's set play header off the line, Firmino missing the close range rebound, and wonderful saves from De Gea on Ings and Ibe. Of course, all of those chances came after Liverpool were already losing.

On the other hand, we've seen this movie before. Despite that mini-flurry after conceding, Liverpool's attack remains horrific, and has been horrific since Luis Suarez was sold and Sturridge became permanently injured. Horrific in the amount of shots, horrific in the quality of shots, horrific in the ability to create chances, and just generally horrific in the final third.

So far this season, Liverpool have scored two hapax legomenon goals and one offside goal through five matches. And have conceded six in the last two matches. So much for building from the back. And that'll continue as teams realize they can bomb forward at will because Liverpool offers next to no threat.

Sure, losing to United always makes the feelings worse, but right now, it feels all we've got is hope that Liverpool will be better as key players return and new players gel. Because we've seen nothing to suggest that this team playing in this manner will lead to better results.

11 September 2015

Liverpool at Manchester United 09.12.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 United (h) 03.22.15
0-3 United (a) 12.14.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.14
0-1 United (a; League Cup) 09.25.13

Last matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 West Ham (h); 0-0 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Bournemouth
United: 1-2 Swansea (a); 4-0 Brugge (a); 0-0 Newcastle (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Coutinho 1
United: Januzaj, Mata 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Gomez
Milner Lucas Can
Benteke Ings

Well this is inopportune timing.

Coutinho's suspended after his red card against West Ham. Henderson and Lallana are almost certainly still absent with their respective injuries. It seems a week or two too soon for Sturridge to return, even if he is back in training. Liverpool haven't yet looked anywhere near their potential best, coming off an international break where nearly everyone was away from Melwood, and coming off their worst home loss in years.

So, yeah, it's not an ideal time to travel to Old Trafford.

Rumor has it that Ings will replace the suspended Coutinho. Which could mean a straight swap – Ings (like Origi, for that matter) is capable of playing as an advanced attacker on the left – or a switch to the 4-4-2 diamond formation.

The lack of width often present in the diamond formation makes me a bit nervous about that formation, especially given United's strength out wide. Liverpool's fullbacks won't get forward often regardless of formation, but Liverpool's midfielders will need to support the defense when Depay, Mata, Shaw, and Darmian attack. And as Swansea demonstrated, there's space to hurt United on the counter when United's fullbacks (especially Shaw) get forward. But Swansea scored their goals on the counter while using a diamond/4-3-1-2: for Ayew pulling into the channels to free space for Gomis, read Ings (or Firmino) and Benteke. And at the same time, the first four matches have also made it obvious that Benteke needs more support. So, yeah, maybe diamond, or what'll be more accurately described as a 4-3-1-2, with Can and Milner necessarily sitting deeper.

If not Ings, the only other option seems to be Jordon Ibe, his pace on the counter-attack a clear benefit, but Ibe's also struggled so far this season, tentative in the final third and more likely to be used as a substitute rather than a starter.

Regardless of formation, Liverpool will want to replicate their performance at Arsenal (except, you know, while actually scoring this time). Unlike against West Ham, the emphasis will be on defense and solidity and limiting space. Which should lead to improved performances from both Lovren and Gomez, who I expect will keep their places. Sure, I think Sakho's a better defender than Lovren, and Moreno's attacking ability will be useful in certain matches, but I doubt Rodgers is changing his defense for this derby.

And to be a little fairer to Liverpool, it's not as if Manchester United have blown the doors off to start the season either. They've scored three league goals to Liverpool's two (including one own goal), have the same total of points, and lost to Swansea last time out. United dominated both legs of their Champions League qualifier against Club Brugge but have failed to impress in any of their league matches, against an arguably weaker slate of opponents than Liverpool have faced: Tottenham (h), Aston Villa (a), Newcastle (h), and Swansea (a).

United's lineup is far easier to predict. De Gea will make his first start of the season, back in favor after his transfer to Madrid fell through and having signed a new four-year contract on Friday. Fellaini seems likely to replace Herrera in the #10 role behind Rooney. It's probably still too soon for new signing Anthony Martial, who'll most likely begin on the bench, while Carrick and Jones look likely to remain absent through an ankle injury and blood clot respectively.

Which makes an XI of De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Shaw; Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger; Mata, Fellaini, Depay; Rooney. Which is a far stronger XI than United's league performances would suggest; you have to suspect they'll get there, and have to hope it won't start tomorrow. Clyne v Depay and Fellaini v Lucas will be fascinating battles, while Gomez will have his hands full against Mata, who, in preferring to cut inside will put him against Gomez's stronger foot.

That the league did Liverpool no favors with the fixture list to start the season has been mentioned time and time again, and we'll still mention it again anyway. This is not a match Liverpool need so early in the season, and after an international break as well.

But Liverpool have to play the hand they've been dealt. And the same can be said for United, nearly as unimpressive as Liverpool to start the campaign. Neither side's scored with any regularity in this short season, but both have been decent-to-good defensively. Well, Liverpool were for the first three matches, but the fourth is far fresher in the memory.

That loss to West Ham rendered the first three matches, and the positivity from them, nearly moot. We're right back to where we were last May following the losses to Palace and Stoke, at each other's throats with few signs of positivity, a seemingly unbalanced squad, Rodgers under the gun already. Which isn't wholly fair, but also kinda is.

There's no better way to wash that loss against West Ham out of your mouth than to get one over on your rivals on their ground.