31 December 2016

Liverpool 1-0 Manchester City

Wijnaldum 8'

One good Liverpool attacking move, a flowing counter in the eighth minute, Lallana's left-footed cross and Wijnaldum's vicious header.

Then, 86 minutes of defense and graft and sweat and was there blood? There might have been blood. It felt like there should have been blood.

14 total shots between two of the division's top scorers. Liverpool have taken more than 14 shots by themselves in 13 of the 19 league games this season. Just three on-target. Just one from inside the box: Wijnaldum's winner.

Just 14 shots and three shots on-target and one goal between two sides prone to hilarious defensive errors, who both defended excellently. It's just that one side defended better than the other, despite having to do a lot more of it.

And so we end 2016 with the first time that Liverpool's won a league match at Anfield by a 1-0 margin.

This has been a strange year.

The plan was evident when Liverpool's line-up was announced. Emre Can in for Origi, Firmino central and Lallana on the left. Liverpool would press, compress, defend, and counter-attack. Liverpool did the first three brilliantly, and the fourth well enough because Liverpool did it once.

After Wijnaldum scored, it was always going to be a matter of defense first and foremost, then counter-attacking if possible. After Wijnaldum scored, Liverpool were one pass away on every counter-attack. And there weren't that many counter-attacks.

But the entire side defended, as well as possible, from the front three's work rate to the midfield's positioning to the full-backs marking tightly to last ditch tackles, headers, and clearances from the center-backs.

After such nullification in the first half, you had to expect a response from Manchester City. Their players are too good, their manager's too clever. And switching Silva and de Bruyne looked to be the correct response, the Spaniard happier to drop into deeper positions, forcing Henderson – evidently struggling with his still-lingering heel injury – to chase, creating more space for others just outside the final third.

Agüero puts City's first shot on-target with an easily held drive from distance. Kolarov does similar five minutes later. Silva drags a shot just wide, Sterling's no-angle sprawling back post volley hits the side-netting. It feels like it's coming, and we're all starting to freak out a little bit, and our cardiologists are seeing dollar signs. And Liverpool bent. But Liverpool didn't break.

And those 15 minutes after halftime were all Manchester City got. Down 0-1, needing a goal to get back into the game, to keep pace with Liverpool let alone Chelsea, Manchester City failed to take a single shot after the 59th minute. Despite maintained, near-permanent possession for another 20 or so minutes. Despite four corners in the space of ten minutes. Despite Henderson needing to go off with that heel injury, with Origi as a replacement and Can now the deepest midfielder.

Liverpool, the bench still too threadbare, made just the one substitution until the 90th minute, the only other viable option an unneeded striker. The side was clearly spent, running on fumes. You'd expect that City should have been able to take advantage. But Klavan and Lovren feasted upon every City ball into the box. Milner utterly silenced Sterling. Even on fumes, Wijnaldum, Mané, Firmino, and Lallana kept running, with Origi's freshness at least an outlet, the necessary mix of willingness, pace, and strength.

And after City ran against a brick wall time and time again for 35 minutes, Liverpool spent the final minutes of the half playing keep away, whether passing across the back or relying on Origi to hold it in the corner. It was an absolute masterclass in seeing out a game. Even though we've seen it before – see: 1-1 at Dortmund, among a few others – it still seemed very not Liverpool. Very "uh oh, Happy learned how to putt."

City ended up with nine shots, but none after the hour. Just two inside the box: Kolarov's mishit volley which I still maintain was an attempted cross in the 39th minute and the aforementioned Sterling volley into the side-netting. None were in the Danger Zone. This was Liverpool's defense at its absolute best under Jürgen Klopp, even if the attack may have suffered for it. Good managers know the balance of their side, and set them up accordingly. And good managers succeed like Jürgen Klopp succeeded today.

And the result certainly didn't suffer for it. Liverpool did what Liverpool had to do. Liverpool retained its second-place spot into the new year, Liverpool won when everyone else near them in the table also won (except City, obviously), Liverpool remain within spitting distance of a Chelsea that should be out of sight after 13 straight wins.

This is how you end a calendar year. On a high, leaving us wanting more. Roll on, 2017.

30 December 2016

Liverpool v Manchester City 12.31.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.02.06
1-1 City aet (n; League Cup) 02.28.06
4-1 Liverpool (a) 11.21.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.01.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Stoke (h); 1-0 Everton (a); 3-0 Boro (a)
City: 3-0 Hull (a); 2-1 Arsenal (h); 2-0 Watford (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 8; Lallana 7; Coutinho, Firmino, Milner, Origi 5; Can 3; Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1
City: Agüero 10; Sterling 5; Iheanacho, Nolito 4; Gündogan 3; de Bruyne 2; Fernandinho, Kolarov, Sane, Silva, Zabaleta 1

Referee: Craig Pawson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Klavan Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Origi Firmino

It's only fitting that 2016 will go out with a bang, that this will be the last Premier League fixture in a truly trying year.

It's probably safest to guess the Liverpool that we've seen in the last three matches. It would be very unlike Jürgen Klopp to name the same XI in four consecutive matches – it'd be the first time that happened since taking over at the club – but that could be down to previous necessity through injury as much as personal preference and desired rotation of a potentially tired, heavy pressing side.

But there seem few options, despite Liverpool having played four days ago. Coutinho and Matip remain absent for another match or two. Can could come in for Wijnaldum, and/or Sturridge for Origi. I'd be very tempted to consider either or both of those changes, especially Sturridge, for both the "always play a player against his former side" axiom as well as his increased likelihood of tormenting City's center-backs and goalkeeper. But Klopp's almost always preferred Origi's team play, and that's it for potential changes unless we see a different Liverpool formation for the first time this season. The other nine Liverpool starters are fairly certain.

This XI has been less potent, despite eight goals in three consecutive wins, although maybe "less prolific" is a better way to phrase it; we've seen goals, just not as many shots or big chances as we've become accustomed to. But this XI has been better defensively, conceding just once in three games, allowing a combined 20 shots, no more than eight in one match.

It's a good time to be more defensively secure.

If you squint hard enough, looking at Manchester City is almost a fun house mirror version of Liverpool. There are some very different differences, but more than a few striking similarities.

Two title contenders, sitting one point apart in the table. Two relatively young, high-profile, well-regarded, hipster darling managers who'll resume a rivalry that started in the Bundesliga; Klopp's Dortmund won four meetings, Guardiola's Bayern won four meetings. These are league's two top-scorers (well, City are joint-second with Arsenal), capable of getting goals in an instant from a variety of ways, but who both remain prone to defensive hilarity and unnecessary concessions. Party at the front, very different sort of party at the back.

Like Liverpool, City hit a bit of a stutter in the league earlier this month, with two-goal losses to both Chelsea and Leicester, but followed it with three consecutive wins. Like Liverpool, two relatively easy wins against sides they should be beating – Watford and Hull – then a harder-fought victory over a closer competitor.

And they've done it while missing key players. Kompany, Gündogan, and Stones are out injured, the former two for long-term. Fernandinho returned from a three-match suspension on Monday, while Agüero will come back from a four-game ban tomorrow.

It's a bit tougher to guess City's XI than Liverpool's. City's depth, especially in attack – more specifically, the ability to purchase said depth – remains one of the biggest differences between the sides. Guardiola's used something like five different starting formations so far this season, sometimes multiples in a single match, but "formation" means a lot less when Pep Guardiola's involved.

Let's go with what we've seen lately coupled with the return of Agüero. A 4-2-3-1 that looks both 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 at times. Bravo; Zabaleta, Otamendi, Kolarov, Clichy; Fernandinho, Fernando; Sterling, Silva, de Bruyne; Agüero. That seems about right. It'll be a back four – City's defense has looked far better when that's the case – but City have the option of using Nolito, Sane, Navas, or Iheanacho in attack; Toure in midfield; and Sagna in defense.

Liverpool have done well against City in recent meetings: two thorough victories in the league last season, along with a narrow penalty shoot-out loss in the League Cup. Liverpool last lost to Manchester City at Anfield in May 2003, with nine wins and five draws since. Liverpool have been better against the bigger sides, both this season and last, since Klopp became manager; in the 15 matches against the rest of the current top six (in all competitions), Liverpool's the only loss in 90 minutes was against Manchester United nearly a year ago.

But Liverpool haven't yet faced this version of Manchester City, for all its faults. Liverpool haven't faced Pep Guardiola's Manchester City: swarming and vicious and hilarious, all as Liverpool are won't to do. Liverpool haven't faced Manchester City as true Premiership rivals – at least in the league, at least since 2013-14 – one point apart in an unbelievably tight top of the table.

Past is no precedent. As with everything so far this season, in every match, Liverpool will have to earn it all over again.

28 December 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 4-1 Stoke

Previous Match Infographics: Everton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

It's the 12th minute and the sky is falling.

Liverpool had started as Liverpool should. Pressing furiously, Stoke penned in, dominating possession. It had led to just three Liverpool chances – Henderson not far over from distance, Firmino's soft header easily saved, Firmino blocked from outside the box – but, aside from Lallana's goal against West Ham, that was at least more than Liverpool created in the first ten minutes of matches since Coutinho's injury. And, to be fair, Liverpool were up against what seemed most like a back three, for the first time this season. It was going to take some time to break through, but the breakthrough seemed coming.

But then, just a little bit of Stoke possession. A hoofed long ball from Grant, Walters and Crouch holding up play, one cross and Crouch header only half-cleared, a second cross and Walters header converted, with Lovren losing his man and Mignolet's spaghetti wrists at the near post.

And the sky is falling. And Liverpool's on tilt. Liverpool look capable of conceding a second at any moment, and Liverpool's lucky not to concede a second when Klavan and Milner can't decide who's going to clear and Allen's in, and Mignolet wonderfully denies him before Klavan clears Pieters' rebound off the line.

And the sky is falling. And then it isn't. Stoke have just one more chance in the next 15 minutes, Walters from outside the box swiftly blocked. And then Liverpool have an equalizer. Then a second. Then a third. Then a fourth.

Between Liverpool's first and fourth goals, Stoke failed to take a single shot. Afellay's 78th-minute off-target blast from long, long range was Stoke's only effort after the 30th minute. During that spell, Liverpool took ten and scored four goals.

I have no idea why you all thought the sky was falling.

Liverpool have now conceded the opening goal around or before the 30th minute in four matches this season. They've won three of them: 4-3 at Arsenal, 2-1 at Swansea, and 4-1 against Stoke. 0-2 at Burnley remains the odd match out, and increasingly looks more and more of a fluke.

Liverpool came back to win one league match from a similar position last season, 3-1 at Chelsea in Klopp's third league match. They drew twice – against Chelsea and at West Brom in May – and lost four: 1-2 against Palace, 0-3 at Watford, 0-2 at West Ham, and 1-3 at Swansea. Although, admittedly, that record looks a lot better if you include cup matches, i.e. Dortmund, Southampton, Kazan, Exeter.

I still advise not conceding the opening goal. But it's yet more evidence of Liverpool's resilience under this manager.

And it helped that yesterday was probably Liverpool's best attacking performance since Coutinho's injury.

Sure, there are the four goals from four different sources. There are 20 shots, only topped by the 27 against really truly not-good Sunderland in the last month, eclipsing the ten at Bournemouth, 18 against West Ham, 15 at Middlesbrough, and 11 at Everton. There's Origi's increasingly good hold-up play, most evident in the build-up to Liverpool's equalizer, as well as his contribution on Imbula's own goal. There's Firmino finally coming good on the left, five shots with three on-target for the second-straight match, and finally scoring. And he created four chances yesterday; he'd created just three in the four matches prior since Coutinho's injury. There's Mané's permanent threat from his pace even when he's not at his most potent, there's Lallana and Wijnaldum's constant movement, and, hey, there's Daniel ****ing Sturridge coming off the bench to score with his first touch.

But Liverpool still had help.

Liverpool still only put six of 20 shots on-target. Three of Liverpool's four goals were unassisted. All four saw at least one Stoke player get a touch during the move, whether it was Diouf's failed headed clearance on the second or errors directly leading to Liverpool's goals. Stoke committed two Opta-defined errors leading to goals: Johnson's misplaced touch setting up Lallana for the first and Shawcross' ill-advised back pass for Sturridge to score the fourth, and that doesn't count Imbula putting the ball in his own net. That error from Shawcross led to Liverpool's only clear-cut chance of the match, despite taking 20 shots.

Liverpool's starting striker failed to take a shot or create a chance, although in a just universe he'd be credited for an assist on Imbula's own goal.

Stoke kind of shot themselves in the foot, even if Liverpool put and pushed them into situations to do so. There was more than a little of how Bournemouth got their goals against Liverpool in how Liverpool got their goals against Stoke. What goes around often really does come around.

And, nonetheless, Liverpool were due.

Each player scored not long after those tweets. Damned lies and statistics, etc. Their goals had felt coming from some time, with Sturridge especially long overdue considering his output in so few minutes. When good players put enough shots on-targets, good players will eventually get their goals.

Sturridge's goal, his first of the season and Liverpool's fourth, to seal the match, was the 100th Premier League goal that Liverpool have scored under Jürgen Klopp. This was Klopp's 48th game.

It's an average of 2.08 goals per game. 20 different players, as well as two own goals. It's not that long ago that it felt as if Own Goal were one of Liverpool's top two or three scorers for nearly half a season. Of course, it's also not that long ago that Liverpool scored 100 goals in a single league season (*waves at Luis Suarez*).

Still, it's a remarkable total considering Liverpool's output in 2014-15 and the first half of 2015-16. And most impressive is how Liverpool have spread the wealth. There are eight players with at least seven goals, but only three in double-digits and no one with more than 16. Five players are no longer with the club – Benteke as top scorer of the lot with seven goals – although Sakho will soon make six.

I've said it before, and I hope to say it many, many more times. This can be and often is a fun attacking team, with heavy emphasis on the word team. Even without Coutinho. Even when getting some help from the opposition. And, probably most importantly, even when conceding the opening goal and it seems as if the sky's falling.

26 December 2016

Liverpool v Stoke 12.27.16

12:15pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (h) 04.10.16
0-1 Stoke (a; League Cup) 01.26.16
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 01.05.16
1-0 Liverpool (a) 08.09.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Everton (a); 3-0 Boro (a); 2-2 West Ham (h)
Stoke: 2-2 Leicester (h); 0-0 Southampton (h); 1-3 Arsenal (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 8; Lallana 6; Coutinho, Firmino, Milner 5; Origi 4; Can 3; Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Stoke: Allen 5; Bojan, Shaqiri 3; Bony 2; Adam, Arnautovic, Muniesa, Walters 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Klavan Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Origi Firmino

All things being normal, it'd still be more difficult to guess tomorrow's XI than usual. Not only will Liverpool play Manchester City four days after this, then Sunderland two days after that, both Sturridge and Can should be available to start after substitute appearances at Everton. And I'd expect that both will get at least one start over the next week. *Insert complaining about packed festive season being even worse for Liverpool here*

And all things aren't quite normal, as Firmino was arrested and charged with drink driving early on Christmas Eve. I can't imagine the club are too happy with that, and wouldn't be surprised to see him dropped. But maybe the club don't punish him until the courts do; that's what happened to Yaya Toure earlier this month.

Matip will likely be left out for at least one more match. Coutinho will likely miss this and the next at best. So, your guess is probably as good as mine. Tomorrow's line-up will better inform how Liverpool intend to cope with games flying fast and thick, as well as with the lingering injuries and Firmino's potential punishment. I'll guess "same as the last two" for seeming lack of a more obvious option, but I expect at least one or two differences, whether it's Sturridge in place of either Firmino or Origi, Wijnaldum or Lallana moving into the front three, or something even more left-field, such as a 4-4-2 diamond. A front six something like Henderson; Wijnaldum, Can; Lallana; Sturridge, Origi.

While it's tempting to focus on Saturday's match as the most meaningful – which it is! – and reckon that if Liverpool are going to "rest" players they may well do so tomorrow, neither Stoke nor Sunderland will let it be easy for Liverpool.

Stoke remain hard to figure out. Their squad suggests that they should be a fair bit higher than 12th in the table, albeit only three points behind seventh at the moment, but they've had a tough time with injuries. They failed to win any of their first seven league matches, but have only lost two of their last ten, winning five and drawing three. But while they're not getting hammered by the likes of City, Tottenham, and Palace any more, none of the wins over the last ten-match stretch have been all that impressive: 2-0 over Sunderland (h), Hull (a), and Burnley (h); 3-1 v Swansea; 1-0 at ten-man Watford. They only faced three sides in the current top-10 during that stretch: 1-0 at tenth-placed Watford, 0-0 against seventh-placed Southampton, and 1-3 at fourth-placed Arsenal.

And this will be an especially not fun week for the Potters, traveling to Chelsea four days after facing Liverpool.

Joe Allen – wee Joe Allen! – is the club's top scorer with five goals. That's, uh, a bit surprising. Especially as it's one more league goal than Allen had in 91 league appearances for Liverpool. Here's to you, Jordan Henderson, because it'll primarily be the captain's job to mark Welsh Jesus.

My best guess for Stoke's XI remains their usual XI, aside from injuries and suspensions. Grant; Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Pieters; Imbula, Whelan; Shaqiri, Allen, Bojan; Walters. Wilfred Bony could start as the main striker – although he's been disappointing since joining from City on loan – with either Walters, Bojan, or Shaqiri dropping to the bench. Crouch, Bojan, and Diouf are other options up front, with Walters, Bojan, and Diouf all capable of playing out wide. And there's a remote chance that Charlie Adam plays in midfield.

Butland, Cameron, Bardsley, and Ireland are out injured, while Arnautovic is suspended.

'By any means necessary' is basically the festive season's motto. As Liverpool did at Everton a week ago. I remain concerned about Liverpool's ability to create and score chances without Coutinho. I will perpetually remain concerned about Liverpool's error-prone defense, no matter consecutive clean sheets. Liverpool squad remains a bit threadbare, but it's getting better at a very necessary time.

Whether Liverpool get "Good Stoke" or "Underperforming Stoke" will make an obvious difference, but we haven't seen Underperforming Stoke much over the last two months and even Underperforming Stoke won't be Horrific Stoke From This Fixture Last Season, a mid-April 4-1 stroll with Stoke having nothing to play for. Stoke have big in-the-way defenders, Stoke can counter, Stoke are good from set plays, Stoke have Lord Joe Allen. Prior to that whomping at Anfield, the away side had won the last three meetings in this fixture by a 1-0 margin.

This ain't gonna be easy. But it rarely is.

20 December 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Everton

Previous Match Infographics: Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (a), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

There has rarely such a vast statistical disparity between these sides at Goodison in recent seasons. As I'm sure you remember, or have seen written more than enough this week, the previous four Goodison derbies – all four under Brendan Rodgers – finished level. 0-0, 1-1, 2-2, and 3-3. And all four were fairly even matches.

This one wasn't.

Everton, whether under Koeman or Martinez, has not enjoyed playing against Jürgen Klopp. 180 minutes, nine Everton shots. Just one on-target: Williams' tame header straight at Mignolet yesterday. The last time Everton managed just one shot on-target at home was more than a year ago: August 2015 against Manchester City. Zero Everton goals. Everton touched the ball in Liverpool's penalty area all of nine times last night, which is at least an improvement on their five in last season's 4-0 massacre at Anfield. Superstar striker Romelu Lukaku has taken just one off-target shot in these 180 minutes, a popped, awkward header off-target yesterday, silenced by Sakho and Lovren at Anfield then Klavan and Lovren at Goodison.

As much fun as Mané's late, late, late winner was, I'm actually starting to get annoyed that Liverpool didn't win by more. It's the lingering problem that we saw against Bournemouth, West Ham, and even Middlesbrough. Even while still scoring, Liverpool struggle to create shots without Coutinho, well below the side's average in both totals and (until yesterday) accuracy before Coutinho's injury.

Deep breaths. It's a derby. At Goodison. Must be taken in isolation. A first 1-0 league win in 2016, since 1-0 at Sunderland on December 30 last year. Consecutive clean sheets away from home in the league for the first time since Klopp became manager. Everton have now won just one of the last 20 league derbies. Mané's winner. Mané's late, late, late winner. The fume. The delicious, delicious fume.

Okay. I'm better now.

For the first time this season, we've seen late dramatics in Liverpool's favor. Something we saw a lot more frequently last season. The only other matches where Liverpool won it even close to late were at Swansea, with an 84th-minute penalty and against Sunderland, with a 75th-minute Origi strike after being unbelievably kept out prior.

Last season, Liverpool came up with injury-time winners against Dortmund, Palace, and Norwich, as well as late injury-time draws against Chelsea, Arsenal, and West Brom. Unlike against Manchester United and Southampton, a late winner always felt possible yesterday, and was more than deserved given what came before. I truly didn't see one coming in either of those two earlier 0-0s. Nor did it feel like coming in the 2-2 against West Ham.

I am tempted to read too much into this result. In previous seasons, this match probably finishes level, as in those the four previous trips to Goodison. Liverpool won ugly, away from home. The clean sheet, the late winner. Parrying Everton's furious start aside without allowing threatening chances, then the slow turning-of-the-screws that an increasingly fatigued Everton couldn't stop. That all this happened against Everton, on their ground.

There's still a long, long, long way to go. Liverpool will be second at Christmas, but Liverpool remain six points behind the leaders and only four ahead of fifth. Liverpool's attack remains underwhelming with Coutinho absent while Liverpool's defense could still be Liverpool's defense, despite how well Klavan and Lovren (especially Klavan) have played in the last two matches.

But, basking in the afterglow, this feels like the sort of memorable win we look back upon after memorable campaigns.

19 December 2016

Liverpool 1-0 Everton

Mané 90+4'

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha *gasp* hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

For 93 minutes, Everton succeeded in dragging Liverpool down to its level. It was an all-too-typical Goodison derby, perfectly in keeping with last season's 1-1 or the 0-0 in 2014-15. It was simply ugly football, by Everton's design.

A furious Everton start, on top and trying to hassle and press Liverpool into mistakes, but unable to do so, with Liverpool unable to keep possession but with Liverpool not allowing Everton any chances either as Klavan and Lovren pocketed Lukaku.

After 30 minutes or so, Liverpool reasserted some semblance of control, but couldn't find any way through an increasingly deep blue wall. And it continued in this vein for the next hour, Liverpool restricted to possession with few chances aside.

Liverpool were all over the place trying to find a way to break through. Firmino, Origi, and Mané constantly switched positions. Lallana and Wijnaldum interchanged, with the former also shuttling forward and into wide areas. Milner and Clyne initially took turns going forward with the other protecting, but that fell by the wayside due to the paucity of Everton attacks, increasingly joined by both Henderson and Lovren in Everton's half.

But Liverpool still managed just eight shots before added time. Only two efforts from Firmino merit a mention: found over the top by Milner in the 50th but unable to beat Stekelenburg, then a volley denied by Robles from a corner in the 80th.

Everton were more happy to win their most important match of the season 0-0.

Unsurprisingly, the larger talking point was the physicality, cynical little fouls from both sides despite Mike Dean's unwillingness to call anything, but mostly from Everton, punctuated by a horrific tackle from Barkley on Henderson that really should have seen red. But Lovren could have been sent off for a second yellow. So could have Barkley.

For the most part, we've become used to the unwritten rule that you actually have to attempt to kill a guy before seeing a red card in this fixture (*waves at Funes Mori*).

But then injury time happened. Daniel Sturridge, on as a substitute, tried to single-handedly make something happen, cutting in from the right to unleash a more-than-speculative shot from distance. It was tame, but at least well-placed. Almost any keeper would have easily claimed it. Joel Robles, on as a substitute after Stekelenburg's injury was not well-placed. Joel Robles was seven yards off his line. So Sturridge's shot sneaked past him, and off the post, and on a plate for Mané first to the rebound.

93:51. The latest winner in a Premier League Merseyside Derby, beating Gary McAllister by a matter of seconds. And the only reason there was so much injury time – an announced eight minutes that went on for ten – was because Stekelenburg wasted so much time after getting injured.

Delightful. It's almost more fun than strolling 4-0 at Anfield.

It's the first win at Everton since October 2011. Klopp's the first Liverpool manager to win his first two Merseyside derbies. He joins Kenny Dalglish as the only Liverpool managers to win their first Goodison derbies since Liverpool got back in the first division in 1962.

There really aren't larger takeaways from this. I still worry about Liverpool's ability to create chances with this attack. We've now seen consecutive clean sheets with the same XI, away from home no less, but I'll always worry about this defense. But it's a derby. These matches almost always have to be taken in isolation.

Except for Liverpool's unwillingness to give up. Liverpool pushing and pushing and pushing and getting that bit of luck, creating that bit of luck, and winning it. At the death. Against Everton. The self-belief this side absolutely needs to maintain, a self-belief that'll see them sit second in the league on Christmas Day.

And I just can't stop smiling.

18 December 2016

Liverpool at Everton 12.19.16

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
4-0 Liverpool (h) 04.20.16
1-1 (a) 10.04.15
0-0 (a) 02.07.15
1-1 (h) 09.27.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Boro (a); 2-2 West Ham (h); 3-4 Bournemouth (a)
Everton: 2-1 Arsenal (h); 2-3 Watford (a); 1-1 United (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 7; Lallana 6; Coutinho, Firmino, Milner 5; Origi 4; Can 3; Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Everton: Lukaku 9; Coleman 3; Barkley, Barry 2; Baines, Bolasie, Mirallas, Williams 1

Referee: Mike Dean

Mike Dean doesn't get Liverpool matches. Or Everton matches. He's from the Wirral, and hasn't referred a game for either side in more than a decade. So this is a surprising appointment.

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Klavan Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Origi Firmino

Oh joy. The Derby.

At least Liverpool's coming off a strong win following two disappointing results, with Liverpool's rebuilt attack finally firing and Liverpool's defense actually defending. At least Liverpool's injury issues are slowly starting to ease. I've no idea whether Matip will be available – we've seen suggestions that his ankle problem just needs to be managed and he's not assuredly out – but at least both Can and Sturridge should be fit enough for the bench.

I am struggling with two competing thoughts.

A) Liverpool haven't lost against Everton since 2010, unbeaten in the last 12 meetings.

B) Liverpool haven't won at Everton since 2011.

Liverpool's last four trips to Goodison Park have finished level. 2-2, 3-3, 0-0, and 1-1. Brendan Rodgers never won there. This will be Jürgen Klopp's first opportunity to do so. Going all the way back to Bill Shankly, in 1963, Kenny Dalglish is the only Liverpool manager to win his first Merseyside Derby at Goodison. He did it in both stints as manager. Everyone else – Rodgers, Hodgson, Benitez, Houllier, Evans, Souness, Moran, Fagan, Paisley, and Shankly – either drew or lost.

Incidentally, Everton haven't lost a league match at home yet this season. They're one of just three sides to do so, along with Tottenham and Liverpool.

Before beating Arsenal on Tuesday, a hard-fought late-earned 2-1 win, Everton had won just once in ten matches. Five losses, four draws. It was a hilarious return to earth after Koeman won five of his first six matches. But Everton remained unbeaten at home. They've held United at home, held Tottenham at home, held Manchester City away, and now beaten Arsenal. Until Tuesday, they had disappointed since the end of September, but they've remained difficult to beat – only Chelsea won by more than a single goal, romping to a 5-0 victory, a match reminiscent of Liverpool's last against Everton – especially on their own ground, and have played better against the better sides aside from that Chelsea demolition.

There will be one enforced change from Tuesday's XI: Phil Jagielka's suspended after picking up two yellows. Meanwhile, Bolasie, Besic, and Kone are still out injured. If Everton's XI is otherwise the same as against Arsenal, it'll be Stekelenburg; Coleman, Funes Mori, Williams, Baines; McCarthy, Gueye, Barkley; Valencia, Lukaku, Lennon – more a 4-3-3 than the more-usual 4-2-3-1.

Gareth Barry, fit again after hamstring issues, is an option in midfield, whether like-for-like in place of McCarthy or a more defensive set-up in place of Barkley. Either Deulofeu or Mirallas could start in place of Valencia or Lennon in attack; Deulofeu's speed seems a tempting choice if Everton plan to focus on counter-attacks.

But we all know where Everton's danger lies.

Hello, Romelu Lukaku. Nine goals so far this season, not far off half of Everton's total. Five goals in 11 appearances against Liverpool, including last season's equalizer in Brendan Rodgers' final match. A burly handful who's also too fast for everyone else's good. Four of his nine goals from headers, two of his nine from set plays. I really hope Joël Matip's fit.

Otherwise, Gueye and Barry/McCarthy can cause problems for Lallana and Wijnaldum/Can, excellent at congesting space in their own half. Seamus Coleman's ability to get forward from right-back will test both Firmino and Milner. Origi should be up for playing against Funes Mori, the man responsible for his ankle injury in last season's 4-0 romp, a tackle which rightfully saw the defender sent off. I'm curious to see how much Everton press and attack; my suspicion is they'd be better suited trying to suffocate Liverpool then counter-attacking given Lukaku's strengths, but we've seen sides succeed by going at Liverpool (hello, Bournemouth).

I'd love it if we saw a reprise of Klopp's first match against Everton. Liverpool still have the potential to be that potent, even without Coutinho, although they'll really need to up the output and improve the shot accuracy shown in the previous three matches. And Everton have been similarly demolished once this season.

But I certainly don't expect it. The personnel may be similar, but this is a different Everton side than last April, one that'd clearly and completely given up on Roberto Martinez. And Koeman's certainly caused trouble before, most notably in last season's 2-3 comeback win at Southampton.

I expect this'll be similar to previous Goodison derbies. I expect this will be brutal: contentious and closely-fought. Probably ugly. Maybe vicious, given this fixture's propensity for red cards.

This Liverpool side can be resilient and can win close, ugly matches away from home: as at Chelsea, as at Swansea, as at Sunderland. I'm all in favor of Liverpool winning ugly. Just as long as Liverpool win.

15 December 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Middlesbrough

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (a), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

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

Everything's better again!

Well, kind of.

Liverpool should be quite pleased with that performance, especially the second half. Three well-worked and well-taken goals, against a side that had conceded just seven through seven home matches prior to this match. A side that had conceded three in a match just once this season. Eight of Boro's last nine games had seen no more than two goals combined between the two sides.

All three of Liverpool's goals saw seven of 11 Liverpool players involved. All three came from the right flank: two crosses, one high and one low, and one centered inside-the-box pass from Lallana – exactly the type of goals Liverpool tried and failed to create against a similarly deep West Ham defense, even if more of Liverpool's attacks came from the opposite flank in that fixture. All three goals were clear-cut chances, against a defense that's allowed fewer clear-cut chances than all but Chelsea, Southampton, Tottenham, and United. This was the first time Liverpool scored more than one clear-cut chance since walloping Watford 6-1, and that's the only other match where Liverpool's scored three or more clear-cut chances.

Adam Lallana deserves absolutely every plaudit he's received but I was just as impressed with Divock Origi's overall performance. Multiple-goal league cup matches and the miracle against Dortmund aside, that might well have been Origi's best all-around game since joining the club.

Origi's now scored five in his last five appearances, but he hasn't really been involved in the build-up to any of Liverpool's other goals. That certainly wasn't the case yesterday. Mané's movement was the highlight of Liverpool's one-touch pass pass pass crucial second, but Origi's flick for Mané to find that space was something special, following it up by quickly getting into the box to score. And his low cross for Lallana's second was his first assist of the season, and only his second league assist for Liverpool. Yesterday saw the first time he's created multiple chances since returning to the line-up as well his first clear-cut chance of the season. Hell, I think it's the first clear-cut chance he's created since Klopp became manager; I'm pretty sure the only other one came when assisting Lallana's goal in the 1-1 draw against Sion in last season's Europa League.

But, once again, Liverpool's shooting still left something to be desired. The first half was especially difficult, struggling to find space in the final third and create against a packed defense aside from the opening. 15 shots in total – still below Liverpool's average – and just four on-target. In the last three matches, Liverpool have taken 43 shots but and put just ten on-target (23.3%). And, somehow, they've scored eight goals!

Liverpool's shooting accuracy – failing to break 30% in the last five league matches after surpassing that mark in ten of the previous 11 – will undoubtedly improve. I truly hope it's before Liverpool's red-hot conversion rate regresses to the mean.

And, once again, Roberto Firmino struggled mightily. Sure, it's less of an issue when we get matches like that from Origi, Lallana, and even Mané – who didn't display the end product we've become accustomed to but was heavily involved in all three goals. Firmino did look more threatening when playing on the right flank in the second half. But he wasn't involved in any of Liverpool's goals. As against Bournemouth, he created just one chance, after failing to do so against West Ham. As against both Bournemouth and West Ham, he failed to put any of his shots (two, three, two respectively) on-target. This dip in form, whether due to having to play from the flanks or missing Coutinho or simply off-color since returning a minor injury or all of the above, remains worrisome.

Meanwhile, Boro's defense may be incredibly stingy, but Boro's attack is often incredibly bad. Middlesbrough take the fewest shots per game in the league, Middlesbrough have scored the fewest goals in the league. Middlesbrough's attack isn't Bournemouth's or West Ham's, let alone even better opposition.

Credit where due, Liverpool didn't give them any real opportunities, despite a comparatively almost reasonable amount of possession from the home side. Liverpool allowed Boro just two second-half shots, both from well outside the box and both after Liverpool scored its second: Fabio's free kick into the wall and Clayton from long range nowhere near the goal.

Simon Mignolet did what he had to, especially in the first half with the game still in the balance: fairly routine saves on Fabio and Gibson, a more impressive but still should-be-saving-it chance at his near post from Fischer, and two well-held claims from Boro corners. Gibson's header could have been spilled, and Negredo was on hand for an easy tap-in rebound. Fischer's blast could have gone in. Neither should have, but we've seen similar before, from both of Liverpool's keepers, and it would have led to a different game. But neither did.

Still, that was a bad attack. Only Southampton and Sunderland – two of Liverpool's three other league clean sheets – offered less, and not much less.

So there are a lot of positives to take away, most notably arresting the slide and restoring the Era of Good Feelings. Really good goals, three of them. Impressive, increasing, smothering control of a match on a ground where Liverpool have historically disappointed. Top scorers in the league, back up to second place.

But there's a lot more to improve and a lot tougher tests to face – starting next Monday – before everything truly is better again.

13 December 2016

Liverpool at Middlesbrough 12.14.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 Liverpool aet (h; League Cup) 09.23.14
0-2 Boro (a) 02.28.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.23.08
3-2 Liverpool (h) 02.23.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 West Ham (h); 3-4 Bournemouth (a); 2-0 Leeds (h)
Boro: 0-1 Southampton (a); 1-0 Hull (h); 2-2 Leicester (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 7; Coutinho, Firmino, Milner 5; Lallana 4; Can, Origi 3; Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, Wijnaldum 1
Boro: Negredo, Stuani 3; Gaston 2; Ayala, de Roon, Downing, Gibson 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Klavan Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Origi Firmino

I am not enamored with the prospect of another Liverpool game so soon after Sunday.

The injury crisis hasn't eased. Coutinho's still out for a few more weeks. Sturridge is still out for *shrug macro*. Can will miss this match with the minor knee injury that kept him out of the last match, Lovren will probably miss this match with the hamstring complaint which saw him removed at halftime in the last match.

Just as importantly, I suspect the crisis of faith hasn't eased either. At least mine hasn't.

Liverpool haven't been good in the last two matches. One point from six seems slightly unfair, but did Liverpool really deserve to win either of those matches? Liverpool didn't do enough to win either of those matches. And blame falls on both the often and rightfully scapegoated defense as well as the previously potent attack.

And Liverpool, with an increasingly diminished squad while still one of the hardest working teams in the league, have used just one substitute in each their last two matches, both basically out of necessity. Fatigue seems likely to set in early this festive season. And there aren't many potential changes possible in tomorrow's XI.

I'll continue banging the "Origi shouldn't start" drum for two reasons. Most importantly, I'm still fairly certain that Liverpool are a more cohesive side with Firmino as the spearhead, even if we've pretty much only seen it this season when Coutinho also plays. He is more influential, the attack combines more often and more effectively, Liverpool create better chances, Liverpool press more fervently. A secondary consideration is it gives Liverpool at least one potentially game-changing option off the bench. You know, unlike in the last two matches.

But with Can, Coutinho, and Sturridge all absent, there aren't many ways to make this work. If Can were available, Wijnaldum could more up to the left wing. If Sturridge were available, it's a like for like change. Both of those will probably be options before Coutinho's back. Woodburn's still too young to start matches, Ojo's not fully fit after a long absence.

The one possibility is playing Moreno as a left-sided forward. We know defense certainly isn't his strong suit. He is, however, quick and creative and he'd actually give Liverpool width on the left, something they've desperate lacked with Milner and Firmino manning that flank in the last two matches (look at both Liverpool's average position/passing network as well as West Ham's tackles and interceptions from Sunday). But I mean, Moreno? Ha. *inserts hilarious picture of Moreno on a hoverboard*

So we're hoping that Liverpool have learned something from the last two setbacks, that Klopp's both identified and found remedies for the underlying problems. Because otherwise, it's same as. The same midfield three, the same back four which finished Sunday's match, and yes, the same goalkeeper.

Karius, for better or for worse, will keep his place. And I'm indifferent on this front. It makes sense to take a low-on-confidence keeper out of the firing line, but we've got two years of precedent for Mignolet actually being bad compared to two sometimes shaky months from a keeper five years younger in a new team in a new league. I'm far less angry at Karius 48 hours after the fact than I was on Sunday; his positioning should have been better on Payet's free kick, but the wall should have been as well, and there was little he could do about the second.

While Middlesbrough might not seen the most threatening opponents, they'll certainly present problems. Like Liverpool, they never stop running. They don't score often, but they don't concede often either. They've kept just one clean sheet in the last five matches, 1-0 over really really not good Hull, but only one match during that stretch saw more than a goal for each side since: a 2-2 draw at Leicester. Otherwise, 1-1, 0-1, 1-0, 0-1.

Boro have also been better away from home, similarly stingy but more capable of counter-attacking, holding Arsenal, City, and Leicester to impressive draws. But you'd suspect they'll have more opponents to counter at home against the likes of Liverpool than most other sides. And, while it's been awhile, Liverpool haven't done well in their last few trips to Teesside, winless in the last seven trips, the most recent in 2008-09.

Their probable XI tomorrow is 4-5-1 – Valdes; Barragan, Chambers, Gibson, Fabio; Traore, de Roon, Clayton, Forshaw, Downing; Negredo. Negredo's still questionable to return, missing Saturday's match with a hamstring problem, while both Gaston Ramirez and George Friend remain absent. If Negredo's unavailable, it'll probably be Jordan Rhodes up front, but Stuani and Viktor Fischer are also options.

Negredo's an effective striker who can score in any possible manner. Adama Traore's a massive threat on the counter, fast as hell even if often without end product. Middlesbrough love to cross – something Liverpool's struggled with at times – most often through Stewart Downing, who you might be familiar with. Both Clayton and Forshaw are underrated, dynamic English midfielders capable of getting into the box but also more than willing to shoot from distance.

And, of course, I'll worry about the handful of ex-Liverpool players. Downing on the left flank, Antonio Barragan at right back, and Daniel Ayala at center-back, although the latter is unlikely to start. It'd be very Liverpool to see one of those players come back to haunt.

So here we are. Predominantly fearing we could see Liverpool's hole dug deeper. Hopefully, that's my natural and never-ending pessimism. Because I'm certain that Klopp will have hammered into the side that it's much more an opportunity to right the recent wrongs. But I'm less than convinced the side will be able to so soon.

12 December 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

A draw is better than Liverpool earned from this fixture last season. A draw is certainly better than what Liverpool did last week. But, for the second week in a row, Liverpool lost a lead and for the third or fourth week in a row, Liverpool weren't good enough at either end of the pitch.

And, 24 hours later, I'm still angriest at Liverpool's attack.

Yes, yes "sample size." Which is a more-than-valid point. But we saw a lot of similar good things recur over the first 12 matches, and we've seen a lot of similar bad things in the last three.

Liverpool are shooting and scoring at roughly the same rate since Coutinho's injury. Liverpool's shot totals, aside from Bournemouth, have been decent, and Liverpool's shot location has been heavily Danger Zone. All good, right? But then you get to Liverpool's shot accuracy and clear-cut chances, which have fallen off a cliff. And you also remember that the last three matches were against Sunderland (20th), Bournemouth (12th), and West Ham (17th).

Liverpool have put just six shots on-target in last two games. And they've scored from five of them! Liverpool simply aren't putting enough shots on-target – damn you, finishing pixie – and Liverpool's chances haven't been as good and Liverpool have missed a few of the actually good chances they've created – Origi's early clear-cut chance at Bournemouth, two Matip set play opportunities and Firmino's poke wide against West Ham, most notably.

Liverpool's four clear-cut chances since Coutinho's injury were a late penalty against Sunderland, Origi's missed sitter at Bournemouth, Mané's goal at Bournemouth, and Randolph's error against West Ham.

Liverpool's five goals in the last two games were Mané's goal at Bournemouth, Boruc's error and Origi's no-angle shot at Bournemouth, Can's excellent shot from distance, Lallana's finish after a good move against West Ham, and Randolph's error for Origi. Two obvious goalkeeper errors, one where Boruc got caught in no man's land – similar to Karius against Antonio yesterday – one rarely repeatable strike from distance, and one competent attacking move.

Liverpool have needed opposition help to get the five goals they've scored in the last two matches. Liverpool probably won't get that help against better opponents.

And when Liverpool's attack isn't working, Liverpool's already rickety and error-prone defense is even more exposed. It took just two unfortunate moments yesterday: not the best positioning from Karius and not the best wall from Liverpool's defenders on a very good free kick from Payet, and an unfortunate deflection which set Antonio up perfectly.

Bournemouth was even more a cluster of insanity: a daft penalty, the entire side stupidly open for the second, the recurring defending-the-second-phase-of-a-set-play problem for the third, and a goalkeeper error for the fourth.

What stands out to me is that Bournemouth and West Ham combined for 19 shots. And, combined, Bournemouth and West Ham created just eight chances. None of Bournemouth four clear-cut chances were set up by a Bournemouth player. Neither of West Ham's goals were assisted: there's Payet's (savable) free kick, and the deflected long ball for Antonio. West Ham had three other unassisted shots from picking up possession, whether a half-cleared corner (Lanzini blocked in the sixth) or too much space for the opposition after Liverpool failed to win possession in the middle of the pitch (Cresswell off-target the 36th).

Liverpool's system often leaves Liverpool vulnerable. This is the cost of Liverpool's high-pressing, high-possession, attack attack attack system, which isn't helped by Liverpool's predilection for set play foibles, inconsistent defending, and erratic goalkeeping. For the first 12 or 13 matches, it mostly worked. And there was still a bit of bad luck in yesterday's concessions: needing a free kick taker with Payet's quality then a horrific deflection to wrong-foot Matip and set up Antonio. Otherwise, Liverpool were rarely troubled, whether through Antonio's pace or by long balls to Carroll.

The bigger story seems that if Liverpool aren't shooting and scoring at the rates they were earlier in the season, Liverpool are far more likely to be punished.

Prior to this last three-game stretch, Liverpool were without Coutinho for one of the first 12 matches. Against Leicester, which finished a thorough 4-1 victory. We against got at least one moment of incredibly bad Liverpool defending leading to a very dumb and unnecessary concession to get Leicester back into the match, but it didn't matter.

Leicester truly weren't good that day, easily picked apart and offering little in attack, but I'm tempted to think the one and only difference was Daniel Sturridge v Divock Origi. Sturridge was involved in three of Liverpool's five goals: winning possession in the center circle on the first, an assist on the second, a hockey assist on the third. He put four of his five shots on-target. His movement, more varied than Origi's and also more focused on dropping deep and pulling to the right, created more space for Firmino to come inside from the left.

That day, Firmino scored twice, put one other shot on-target, and created four chances. Yesterday, Firmino put two shots off-target, had another blocked, and failed to create a single chance. There's probably a bit of injury rust in Firmino's disappointing performances in the last two games, but I'm also fairly sure he'd play better with Sturridge as the spearhead.

But Daniel Sturridge isn't available, and not for the first time. And Origi, with four goals in the last four games, clearly isn't the only problem. It also doesn't seem entirely fair to focus on a 21-year-old striker getting his first sustained run in the side for the last six months. But, other than the goals, he's simply not contributing enough, and he seems the most solvable problem with Liverpool's squad presently as threadbare as it's become. Maybe I'm an abused puppy at this point, but the defense might just be what it is. The attack has been and can be a lot better than we've seen against the last three bottom-half sides.

Despite the brilliance shown in the first three months, Liverpool suddenly find themselves in a very tenuous position. Every single one of us would've chopped off fingers for 31 points from 15 games before the start of the season, but Liverpool's last few matches have made a wobble feel like a free fall.

Three weeks ago, Liverpool were joint-top of the table. Now, they're six points behind Chelsea. The four-point gap ahead of fifth-place Tottenham and seven-point gap ahead of six-place Manchester United could easily narrow if Liverpool's form remains as its been during the fast and furious festive season.

There's still a lot of time to arrest the slide and save the season. But they'll have to do it soon. And I'm not entirely sure how they're going to do so.

11 December 2016

Liverpool 2-2 West Ham

Lallana 5'
Payet 28'
Antonio 39'
Origi 48'

The West Ham curse lives on, in slightly diminished form.

The Liverpool defensive curse lives on, because Liverpool's self-destructive tendencies live on.

It's more points dropped from a winning position and more shooting yourself in the foot coupled with a bit of bad luck. At home, against a side in the relegation zone missing two starting defenders who'd lost their last two matches by a 9-2 margin.

It all looked so very different after five minutes. Liverpool win possession from Randolph's hopeful punt, Origi brilliantly flicks to Firmino out wide while holding off a defender, Firmino finds Mané cutting from right to left. And Mané out wide on the left somehow gets in a weaker foot cross to Lallana open eight yards from goal, right-footed control, left-footed finish. Woof. Pace and fluidity personified, poetry in motion.

Pity that'd pretty much be Liverpool's only good attacking move of the match.

The problem with players constantly looking to interchange, who haven't played with each other that often – Origi still young and raw, Firmino and Lallana are recently back from injury, the former not used to being on the left even if that position's mostly in theory – is it's great when it comes off, but more often than not, it's going to lead to misplaced passes and a disjointed attack.

And, when that's combined with Liverpool's soul-killing predilection for defensive eccentricity, West Ham responds to Liverpool's early goal and we get today.

The sad thing is that Liverpool probably go unpunished most days against most sides. Absolutely, blame Karius' position on Payet's free kick equalizer, as well as the fact he gets a hand to the ball and it still goes in, but you still need a player like Payet to arrow it around the wall and in from 30 yards. 11 minutes later, West Ham are ahead from a hopeful long ball, and you're welcome to blame Karius getting caught in no-man's land and Matip getting wrong-footed, but that only happens because that hopeful long ball deflected perfectly for Antonio off Henderson's head.

Did West Ham even have any other reasonable chances to score besides those two goals? Yes, Liverpool allow way too many goals from the paltry amount of shots conceded. But Liverpool's defensive mishaps and mistakes blind us to how poor Liverpool's attack has been without Coutinho. Shot accuracy's down, shot totals are down, and chance quality is down, and that's as big a reason for Liverpool's failure in the last two matches as the defense that's been this defense all season long.

If Liverpool's attack is even 50% of what we saw before Coutinho (and Sturridge) was injured, Liverpool wins today. 3-2, 4-2, whatever.

Yes, Liverpool were better in the second half. A bit more cohesive in attack and assuredly more secure at the back. But Liverpool only equalized thanks to a massive goalkeeper mistake, Randolph dropping Mané's cross directly to Origi, a mistake far worse than anything Karius did today. That was Liverpool's only clear-cut chance of the match. Liverpool's only other shot on-target was Henderson from long, long range, wonderfully saved by Randolph. Liverpool had almost 45 full minutes at 2-2 and Liverpool took just eight shots: Henderson from distance on-target, three shots off-target, four shots blocked. That's a pitiful amount considering Liverpool's time of possession and touches in the penalty box, and Liverpool's proclivity for crosses against West Ham's walking refrigerators (© Anton) certainly didn't help.

Liverpool's defense isn't good. We know this. 20 goals against in 15 games, constant and consistent calamities, etc. But Liverpool's defense was what Liverpool's defense has been all season. Good at denying shots but somehow bad at denying goals, and it's not all Karius' or Lovren's or Lucas' fault (although Liverpool's defense did look better after Klavan strangely replaced Lovren at halftime, I guess due to injury).

Liverpool have scored five goals in the last two games and taken just one point. So I understand wanting to blame a defense which conceded six. But three of those five goals had a lot to do with the opposition keeper: Boruc for the first two at Bournemouth, Randolph today. Can's third at Bournemouth was a shot he's missing nine times out of ten. Lallana's goal was Liverpool one move that demonstrated the quality that Liverpool aspire to.

You aren't getting most of those goals against better opposition.

There's no easy fix. Coutinho's out for three more weeks if not more. Who knows when Sturridge will be back. Mané's going to the African Cup of Nations next month. Liverpool's outfield substitutes today were Klavan, Lucas, Moreno, Alexander-Arnold, Ejaria, and Woodburn; ain't a lot you can do with that. I'm tempted to push Firmino central and drop Origi – despite the four goals in four games – because Firmino's been irrelevant on the left in the last two games and Origi still struggles to link up with others with any consistency, but I'm also just angry and reactionary at the moment. What are the options? Moreno at left-wing? Wijnaldum left when Can's back from his minor knee issue?

All Liverpool can do is what we said following last week's setback: heads down, keep working, respond. Hope players get fit, try to buy in January. But the necessary response now looks like a lot harder than we initially thought.

10 December 2016

Liverpool v West Ham 12.11.16

11:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 West Ham aet (a; FA Cup) 02.09.16
0-0 (h; FA Cup) 01.30.16
0-2 West Ham (a) 01.02.16
0-3 West Ham (h) 08.29.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-4 Bournemouth (a); 2-0 Leeds (h); 2-0 Sunderland (h)
West Ham: 1-5 Arsenal (h); 1-4 United (a); 1-1 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 7; Coutinho, Firmino, Milner 5; Can, Lallana 3; Lovren, Origi 2; Henderson, Matip, WIjnaldum 1
West Ham: Antonio 6; Lanzini 3; Carroll, Collins, Payet, Reid, D Sakho 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Henderson Can
Mané Firmino Wijnaldum

Time for a response.

Lallana's coming back into the side. Who makes way? Wijnaldum or Can, a like-for-like change? Emre Can has been more impressive than Wijnaldum lately, adding some much-needed goals to his all-around hustle, but Wijnaldum's frequently an important link player, and one who's noticeably better at Anfield.

I think I'd rather that it's Origi left out. Bear with me. Yes, I know he's scored in each of the last three games. He's gotten his chance due to injuries and he's taken it. But Liverpool have still looked better with Firmino up front, although I'm not entirely sure how much that has also been down to Coutinho. And Firmino, often one of Liverpool's best players so far this season, was irrelevant at Bournemouth when deployed on the left. Wijnaldum seems capable of playing in Coutinho's role, coming inside to create but also a goal threat. He wasn't especially impressive in that role against Leeds, but that was his first time doing so, and it was with a changed attack.

I also suspect Origi could be even more important as an option off the bench. You remember what Liverpool's options were against Bournemouth, yes? They weren't entirely helpful when Liverpool needed to change the game.

Otherwise, same as. Except, thankfully, Joël Matip's back. Our savior.

As much as Liverpool need to respond to last week's set back, West Ham need even more of a response, to more than just last week.

It has been a baffling season to forget so far. West Ham are winless in their last six matches, their last five in the league, and sit just one point outside the relegation zone. They could be in the relegation zone by kickoff if Hull win or Sunderland draw in today's matches. They lost their last two matches, albeit one in the League Cup, by a 9-2 margin. They haven't kept a clean sheet since the middle of October.

How the hell did this happen? West Ham were one of last season's surprises, taking points off of every side that finished ahead of them, beating most of those, and were especially potent away from home.

There's the second season syndrome cliché. Injuries are also a good place to start, with West Ham missing multiple strikers and center-backs throughout the season. It's gotten slightly better recently, but Collins, Byram, Diafra Sakho, and Töre will be absent, while Kouyate's doubtful. Dimitri Payet's diminishing form upon his return from an impressive Euros is another factor. And a switch to the Olympic Stadium certainly hasn't helped.

It's been an almost perfect storm of bad. Which, for some reason, often bodes as poorly for Liverpool as it does for their opponents.

West Ham remain a side more than capable of hurting Liverpool. Counter-attacks, set plays, and crosses – all potential recipes for disaster. Their top scorer, Michail Antonio, has scored all six of his goals from headers. Andy Carroll's healthy again.

And regardless of form, West Ham have been more than capable of hurting Liverpool in the past. They've been a bête noire recently, with Liverpool winless in the last four meetings. Even Klopp couldn't stop the bum rush; last season's 0-2 loss at West Ham was arguably Liverpool's worst performance of the season after Klopp took over. Last season's 0-3 loss at Anfield was arguably Liverpool's worst performance of the season period.

Both league losses came in the same manner. West Ham tore at Liverpool from the opening whistle, West Ham scored within ten minutes, West Ham scored from crosses, and Liverpool were never able to get back into the game.

The likely XI is Randolph; Arbeloa, Reid, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Obiang, Noble; Antonio, Lanzini, Payet; Carroll. Eight of those players started in the 0-3 loss at Anfield last August. Six started in the 0-2 loss at the Boleyn Ground in January, with Payet and Obiang also coming on as substitutes.

Antonio could also play at right-back, with Ayew, Fletcher, or Feghouli in attack, or at wing-back. West Ham had been playing three at the back for the last few weeks, but it's not really possible if both Kouyate and Collins remain absent. Arbeloa was absolutely the weak link against Arsenal, but in his defense – and I'm still prone to defend him – he did unexpectedly come off the bench, hadn't played in two months, and his entrance forced a change in systems. Still, he'll be targeted, and his inclusion could be an argument for Firmino on the left.

So, considering form and venue and Liverpool's righteous and rightful fury with last weekend's result, you'd expect a smashing. Don't expect anything. We know what Liverpool are capable of, but Liverpool will still need to prove it, and West Ham are still capable of denying it.

Once again, we're counting on Liverpool to respond to setbacks and react accordingly, to do what they failed to do in previous seasons, to demonstrate they're both better and more consistent that what we've seen in the past, and to prove they're deserving of being in the top four and title races.

05 December 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 3-4 Bournemouth

Previous Match Infographics: Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

Here's a list of all the matches where Liverpool have drawn or lost from a 2-0 lead since 2004-05.

3-4 Bournemouth (a) 2016-17
2-2 Newcastle (h) 2015-16
2-3 Southampton (a) 2015-16
2-2 Sunderland (h) 2015-16

2-2 Leicester (h) 2014-15
3-3 Palace (a) 2013-14
2-2 Arsenal (a) 2012-13
2-2 Everton (a) 2012-13

2-3 QPR (a) 2011-12

4-4 Chelsea CL (a) 2008-09

Sure, it's the first time it's happened this season – and we've seen much, much more good than bad this season – but that's four times in the last 28 league matches. Four times in the last 12 league matches that Liverpool have failed to win. That's seven more points that Liverpool should have had last season – and seven more points would've seen Liverpool finish fourth – to go along with three that would've seen Liverpool keep pace with Chelsea this season.

Liverpool giving away a 2-0 lead happened four times in Rodgers' three-and-a-little-more seasons, with Liverpool at least drawing all four, once in Dalglish's season-and-a-half, and once in Benitez's six seasons, in the Champions League with Liverpool chasing an away goal deficit.

Liverpool's football has been a lot more fun this season than in any other but two of those other 12 seasons, but this is not a good trend.

There's probably some recency bias involved, but this seemed the first of the four matches where Liverpool truly deserved to drop points. Sunderland and Newcastle were both flukes (as much as you can call something that's happened multiple times "flukes"). Southampton and Liverpool were more evenly matched, but Liverpool's "good" first half was far better than yesterday's, Liverpool probably should have been further ahead than 2-0, and Liverpool's defense collapsed even more at St Mary's after Lovren went off at halftime and all but helped hand Southampton the win (hi Skrtel, how's Turkey?).

Yesterday, Liverpool weren't especially impressive even in the first half. Sure, they pressed exceedingly well, completely pinning Bournemouth back, but their possession didn't lead to many chances, taking just five shots. Both of Liverpool's goals came from long passes and pace rather than well-worked moves and were absolutely helped by Boruc's goal-keeping. Shot accuracy wasn't great – just three on-target, all three goals – Firmino did little out wide, etc, etc.

And the second half was a completely different story. Again, scads of Liverpool possession, but still too few shots, coupled with a lot more chances for Bournemouth, mainly through counter-attacks and set plays and especially in the final 30 minutes. Ten of Bournemouth's 12 shots came after Can gave Liverpool a 3-1 lead. Seven of those ten shots were on-target.

This was the first time that Liverpool were out-shot in a match this season.

But, despite Bournemouth being honestly good, especially in the second half but even in the first, there's still more than a bit of Liverpool shooting itself in the foot.

I still can't get over Bournemouth's second goal. You're two goals up with 15 minutes to play. You've seen off one Bournemouth attempt at getting back in the game, responding to Wilson's penalty with a Can's excellent strike, and seen the last ten minutes pass with just one frightening incident, Fraser's effort saved by Karius after a left-wing cross.

Then, this happens.

Eight Liverpool players – everyone bar the center-backs and Karius – in Bournemouth's half (Henderson's just behind Can, barely out of the picture, and pushes both further forward and to the right after this), with six in the final third. Both full-backs are incredibly far forward (Clyne's basically in the penalty box). Again, you're two goals up with just 15 minutes to play. Why.

So when Origi cheaply loses possession, basically passing straight to Wilshere, we've got a problem. Everyone's on the back foot.

Hey, Dejan. Maybe watch Callum Wilson. Also, why is Milner running in-field?

And Liverpool still *nearly* dealt with it. Lucas is on the ground because he's slipped after missing an interception by inches. Similar goes for Henderson, directly in front of Fraser. If Wilson's pass is any closer to either of those players, Liverpool almost certainly deals with the situation, and there's a good chance (at least a far better chance) that Liverpool holds onto the victory.

From there, the still all-too-familiar collapse, nerves and tilt and failure, while Bournemouth recovered belief. Failing to deal with the second phase after a half-cleared set play for the third, similar after a long throw coupled with Karius' error for the fourth – both boned-headed concessions we've seen before, in this season and last.

Liverpool have gotten to where they are this season with full-throttle go-for-the-throat football, but there's a time and place for everything. In retrospect, the time before Bournemouth's second was a time for safety. They don't do it often, but Klopp's Liverpool can do safety.

Also, this is important.

Every single one of Bournemouth's big chances came from something Liverpool did or didn't do. Wilson's penalty. Afobe out-muscling Lovren in an aerial duel from a bouncing ball hoofed out by Boruc, then dancing around Lucas before being denied by Karius from point-blank range. Ake's first rebound when Karius' spilled Cook's shot followed by the winning goal.

That's why Bournemouth took 12 shots despite just five key passes while Liverpool had 10 shots from nine key passes. The opposition doesn't need your help, Liverpool.

So, yeah, all the "THE SKY IS FALLING" is understandable. The hand-wringing over Liverpool's defense without Matip and Liverpool's attack without Coutinho is understandable. The fears about Karius' goal-keeping are understandable (I'll make excuses here: he made two good saves, was probably unsighted for Bournemouth's second, and Cook's blast which led to Ake's rebound was both hard-hit and moving).

But even after all the complaining above, I'll still plead for a bit of calm. Even if they've happened too often under Klopp, games like this do happen. Bournemouth does deserve more than a bit of credit. If Milner's corner goes two centimeters further in the 73rd minute, it's 4-1, game over. Origi was a foot away from scoring a Liverpool winner just before Ake scored Bournemouth's. It's the first time this season Liverpool took fewer points from the same fixture than they did last season. It's Liverpool's second loss of the season after a 15-match unbeaten streak. Liverpool still have more points from 14 games than they did in 2013-14.

I didn't enjoy the comparison, but it was pointed out to me last night that this looked an awful lot like what Liverpool did to Borussia Dortmund at Anfield last season. Dortmund turned out okay.

Sure, there are more than a few signs that should cause worry. But, so far this season, Liverpool have exceeded expectations. And so far this season, Liverpool have learned from every set back.

04 December 2016

Liverpool 3-4 Bournemouth

Mané 20'
Origi 22'
Wilson 56' [pen]
Can 64'
Fraser 76'
Cook 79'
Ake 90+3'

Beyond embarrassing.

The easy way out – and I'm incredibly tempted to take it – is blame everything on Matip's absence. Two consecutive clean sheets in the league, just nine goals conceded in his 11 starts, 10W-3D in his 13 starts in all competitions, and then this happens. Liverpool have now conceded nine goals in the three league games where he hasn't played.

But that's still no excuse. Not with 2-0 and 3-1 leads. Not even with Coutinho and Sturridge also missing and Mané forced off through injury in the 69th minute and Lallana only fit enough to come off the bench and any other excuse you can possibly come up with.

That was an utter, complete, full team collapse in the second half.

Matip's absence didn't lead to a complete lack of control in the second half or Liverpool's inability to create chances or take shots, whether playing for possession or the counter-attack. Matip's absence didn't lead to Lovren's weak clearing header and Milner's foul for a penalty. It didn't lead to Origi's giveaway or Bournemouth's impressive counter for the second, Fraser's cross and Cook's control and finish for the third, or Karius spilling for Ake's fourth. Liverpool's defense is without a doubt worse without him, especially when defending set plays – hello second and third goals conceded – but Liverpool should still be able to protect a two-goal lead.

And, unlike in almost every other game this season but all too much like too many games last season, Liverpool couldn't and Liverpool didn't.

The first half was good enough. Liverpool pressed well, Liverpool played out from the back well, Liverpool kept possession well. Liverpool didn't create as much as we're used to, but Liverpool still created two big chances and took two chances when they presented themselves, through the pace of Mané and Origi and with a bit of help from Boruc, stuck in no man's land when Can's ball over the top found Mané for the first, beaten by Origi when he came storming out for the second.

That should have been enough. Liverpool should have continued to control proceedings, preventing counters. If not, at least keep it tight and soak up pressure and potentially extend the lead on counter-attacks.

To be fair, Bournemouth had other ideas.

We were warned. Bournemouth is a well-managed, talented side which – most importantly – will never give up. They will attack, they will have spells of dominance. They had those against Arsenal last week as well, but couldn't take their chances. That certainly wasn't an issue today, with eight shots on-target from 12 in total leading to four goals.

Bournemouth deserve praise as much as Liverpool deserve blame. Bournemouth didn't give up at any point. To resort to banal cliché, Bournemouth simply wanted it more. Bournemouth's expected goal difference was the best any opponent's had against Liverpool this season. They did well to limit Liverpool in the first half despite the scoreline, their subs made a massive difference – especially compared to Liverpool's inability to change things thanks to an under-strength bench – and switching the back four at 1-3 (Ake moving to left-back, Smith to right-back) made a massive difference. I was especially impressed with Ryan Fraser, only coming on due to injury to Junior Stanislaus, who won the first penalty, scored Bournemouth's second, and played the assist for the third.

But I can't help but focus on blaming Liverpool. Liverpool made a 22-year-old substitute winger look like the second coming of Lionel Messi. Liverpool responded to the stuttering second half start and conceding a penalty with a lovely goal from Emre Can after good work from Mané and then Liverpool proceeded to throw it all away again rather than shutting up shop.

Maybe Liverpool simply can't shut up shop. That's why Liverpool attack attack attack, determined to simply score more than their opponents. But I still don't think that's entirely the case. We've seen clean sheets without Matip before, if not in the league this season. We've seen Klopp's Liverpool throttle the life out of a team trying to respond – see Dortmund and more than a few others last season. We've seen Liverpool do this, but we've seen Liverpool not do this more often.

Today, nerves and errors multiplied exponentially. Today, the set play demons came back, the goalkeeper howlers came back, the clear "holy hell we're boned get me out of here" came back and permeated throughout the side. Today, all the evil returned with a vengeance. It's not the first time that's happened and while we can always hope, it probably won't be the last.

Every single one of us would've bit your hand off for third place and 30 points from 14 games at the start of the season. Liverpool have issues at the moment: in defense, in confidence, with injuries, but Liverpool are still better than this and games like this happen far less often than they did last season.

It's next to impossible to do after a performance like that, but – just like after Burnley – Liverpool have to pick themselves up, learn from today's multiple failures, and move forward. Injuries be damned, increasingly busy festive season be damned. There's no other option.

03 December 2016

Liverpool at Bournemouth 12.04.16

8:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.17.16
1-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.28.15
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.17.15
3-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 12.17.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Leeds (h); 2-0 Sunderland (h); 0-0 Southampton (a)
Bournemouth: 1-3 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Stoke (a); 1-2 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 6; Coutinho, Firmino, Milner 5; Lallana 3; Can, Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, Origi, WIjnaldum 1
Bournemouth: Wilson 4; Stanislas 3; Gosling, King 2; Ake, S Cook, Daniels, A Smith 1

Referee: Bobby Madley

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Wijnaldum Henderson Can
Mané Origi Firmino

Do Liverpool risk either or both of the two crucial players who've been injured but returned to training this week?

Whether Firmino or Lallana make the XI is even more important given Coutinho's lengthy absence. But I'm not sure if that makes Liverpool more or less likely to play it safe, as they've become that much more crucial over the next couple of months, not just for tomorrow's match.

So, the line-up guess is completely predicated on their inclusion. Maybe both play and either Firmino starts on the left with Origi central or Origi drops to the bench with Wijnaldum wide left, as he was against Leeds. We're definitely going to see Wijnaldum in Coutinho's position at times over the next six weeks. If neither play, it's a bit trickier: maybe Milner shifts into midfield with Moreno at left-back, maybe Ejaria or Woodburn or even Moreno is used in attack, maybe Stewart comes into midfield. The cupboard's beginning to look a bit threadbare, as Daniel Sturridge remains absent with a lingering calf problem.

My best guess is Firmino, who missed less time with a less serious injury, plays but Lallana's protected. But, as usual, it's no more than a guess, and both starting is probably just as likely.

Regardless of who plays, Bournemouth presents a more than viable threat, even if they sit 12th with half as many points as Liverpool, even if they've won just once in their last five matches.

Bournemouth have been a bit of everything so far this season. They've lost three of their last four, the lone win a narrow 1-0 over Stoke. They're one of just two sides to score six in a Premier League match this season, along with Liverpool. They conceded three against United and Arsenal and four against Manchester City but also held both Everton and Tottenham scoreless. The last loss, at Arsenal, was a lot closer than the scoreline suggests, Bournemouth missing multiple chances at both 1-1 and 2-1 before Alexis secured the victory in injury time.

Most dangerous is Bournemouth's ability on counter-attack. They've multiple attackers who can cause Liverpool problems, from top scorer Callum Wilson to Stanislas, King, Afobe, Gradel, and some dude named Jordon Ibe on the flanks to even Jack Wilshere, who's increasingly not too far off from actually looking like Jack Wilshere.

For better or for worse, Bournemouth probably won't play like Southampton or Sunderland. Bournemouth's games, even the low-scoring ones, have been much more open. They'll challenge Liverpool. Liverpool will probably have a bit more defending to do than in other recent games, and I'm curious (read: nervous, terrified, not excited) to see how they cope. And that challenge might but won't necessarily make it easier for Liverpool to find space to play in attack.

Surman and Lewis Cook are the only Bournemouth players assuredly out, but Stanislas, Daniels, and Boruc are all slight doubts. My best guess at an XI is Federici; Francis, Cook, Ake, B Smith; Gosling, Arter; King, Wilshere, Stanislas; Wilson. Brad Smith, despite his Liverpool past, is most likely to drop out if Charlie Francis is anywhere near fit, his start against Arsenal his only appearance so far this season. Afobe, Ibe, Gradel, and Adam Smith – usually a right-back but started as a right-winger against Arsenal – are other options in attack.

Each of Liverpool's matches against Bournemouth last season were tight games. Tight games which Liverpool held on to win, but tight games none the less: 1-0 at home under Rodgers, 1-0 in the league cup in one of Klopp's early matches, and 2-1 at Bournemouth with the much-changed Liverpool side we saw with the focus on the Europa League.

And that could and probably should be the story of tomorrow's match. Bournemouth will make Liverpool work for it. Eddie Howe's an excellent manager and they've got some talented players. But if Liverpool do what Liverpool should – as they've usually done this season, no matter the strength of the XI – Liverpool's class should win out.