30 January 2016

Liverpool 0-0 West Ham

That could have been worse, that should have been better. But that’s Liverpool.

At least Liverpool didn’t do anything stupid. At least Liverpool didn’t concede against the run of play. At least Liverpool didn’t concede from a set play. At least Liverpool didn't concede from the first, and only, shot on-target that Liverpool faced. Those things have happened all too often, lately and over the last 18 months, even when Liverpool have been “the better side.”

So it could have been worse.

And Liverpool were the better side today, despite basically the same side as against Exeter ten days ago. Three new faces in defense – Clyne and Lovren returned from injury, Caulker made his full debut – but otherwise, eight of the same XI that beat Exeter 3-0 at Anfield. West Ham started seven first-team regulars: Payet, Valencia, Song, Kouyate, Tomkins, Reid, and Cresswell; every player, even the back-up keeper, had made at least three Premier League starts this season.

Liverpool controlled the game, and Liverpool controlled the midfield, whether facing West Ham's 4-3-3 or West Ham's 4-4-2. Liverpool pressed quite well. Liverpool were – despite a couple of set play scares, because of course – reasonably secure at the back.

Liverpool rarely looked like scoring.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Liverpool had some good chances to score, and, unsurprisingly, a couple were either mis-hit or wildly off-target. But Liverpool also put six good shots on goal: Brannagan’s wonderful effort from distance, two wide-box near-post shots by Teixeira, and three in quick succession in the 75th: Benteke through on goal but saved, Allen’s rebound saved, Benteke’s rebound saved. All except Brannagan’s could have been better taken, but they weren’t badly taken either.

That said, Benteke disappointed again, failing to seize another chance to find form. Ibe disappointed, his throughball to Benteke in the 75th the only moment of note before Ojo replaced him in the 80th. Liverpool created enough to win, but Liverpool still need to create even more than that to win.

So it should have been better.

Meanwhile, West Ham’s chances were limited to a couple of shots from distance and a set play scramble in the 50th minute, where Caulker could have been penalized for handball and Reid’s point-blank shot was saved and smuggled away. And that’s about it.

When Liverpool save the first shot on-target, Liverpool keep a clean sheet: as against Exeter (h), Stoke (a), Sunderland, Leicester, etc. It’s when they don’t that Liverpool have problems.

It wasn’t as strong a West Ham side as those Liverpool lost to in the league, but it was an even weaker Liverpool side. And this was the best that Liverpool have played against West Ham this season, by some distance.

Liverpool have now played 270 minutes against West Ham this season. They’ve taken 54 shots. They’ve put just nine on-target – six of them today – for just 16.7% accuracy. They’ve yet to score.

That’s bad. And it’s not for the first time, with Liverpool failing to score in seven of the last 15 matches. At least we know where Liverpool most need to improve. Not that we didn’t already.

As said after the first match against Exeter, Liverpool really don’t need any more matches, the fixture list already far too full. We’ll do this one again on February 9th, sandwiched between league matches against Sunderland and at Aston Villa. Liverpool will have at least seven matches in February, eight if Liverpool win the replay. Either seven or eight in 28 days. Liverpool haven’t had a week between games since 2015, with six whole days between the December 20 loss at Watford and December 26 win over Leicester.

But if it’s this XI again, it’s not the worst thing in the world. Rested players often play better than tired ones, and you can see the progression these players have made: from the first match at Exeter, then at home against Exeter, and now against a reasonably strong West Ham. Brannagan, Teixeira, Smith, and Stewart were some of Liverpool’s best today, along with Clyne and Allen. This has been valuable experience for them, and another match – this time at Upton Park – should be as well.

Still, I’d rather a reasonably competent Liverpool side which had multiple chances to finish the job today had actually done so.

29 January 2016

Liverpool v West Ham 01.30.16

12:30pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 West Ham (a) 01.02.16
0-3 West Ham (h) 08.29.15
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.31.15
1-3 West Ham (a) 09.20.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Stoke aet (h); 5-4 Norwich (a); 3-0 Exeter (h)
West Ham: 2-2 City (h); 1-2 Newcastle (a); 3-1 Bournemouth (a)

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: 3-0 Exeter (h), 2-2 Exeter (a)
West Ham: 1-0 Wolves (h)

Goalscorers (FA):
Liverpool: Allen, Ojo, Sinclair, Smith, Teixeira 1
West Ham: Jelavic 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Martin had a… let’s say “busy” match mid-week, in the semi-final between City and Everton. He’ll probably prefer to play less of a role in tomorrow’s contest.

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Caulker Lovren Smith
Brannagan Allen
Ibe Teixeira Ojo

West Ham is not Exeter. Not even close. West Ham currently sits two points ahead of Liverpool in the league, West Ham is a side that has beaten Liverpool – fairly handily – in three of the last four meetings.

I’d still play a team that looks a lot more like the XIs against Exeter than the XIs in the league or league cup.

I’d be hesitant to start any of the XI, except maybe Mignolet, tomorrow. Henderson, his foot problem still a problem, certainly won’t start, but none of the other nine outfield starters (all of whom played at least 85 minutes) will physically be 100%. In total, it was 120 draining, cup semi-final minutes – unsurprisingly, the most that Liverpool have run in a match this season. And Liverpool have an away match against the league leaders three days after this one.

The injury situation still isn’t great, but it’s eased a bit; at least Clyne and Lovren should return. Caulker and Ward are available to make their debuts. Brad Smith’s played well when called upon, Brannigan was one of Liverpool’s best players in the last round, and Allen’s in surprisingly good form. I’d also use both Ibe and Ojo for counter-attacking pace down both flanks, with Teixeira as the central playmaker, and – as against Exeter – Benteke up front, in the hopes that'll he turn into the player that Liverpool assumed they were buying.

It’s an understrength side, but it’s not a bad side. And given how Liverpool’s “full-strength” sides played in the last two matches against West Ham, I’m also not opposed to changes just for the sake of changing.

Unlike Liverpool, West Ham aren’t still in four competitions. West Ham didn’t play 120 minutes midweek. West Ham will make changes, but probably not many, and definitely not as many as Liverpool.

In the last round, a 1-0 win over Wolves, West Ham’s XI was Randolph; Jenkinson, Collins, Reid, Cresswell; Obiang, Song, Noble; Antonio, Jelavic, Zarate. That’s a decent starting point for guessing tomorrow’s XI. Jenkinson has returned to Arsenal after a serious knee injury last week. Zarate has been sold to Fiorentina. Noble’s doubtful through illness. Carroll, Lanzini, O’Brien, and Sakho are also injured.

With that in mind, and considering West Ham also have an important – if less difficult – league match on Tuesday, let’s guess Randolph; Byram, Collins, Reid, Cresswell; Kouyate, Song, Obiang; Antonio, Valencia, Moses. Starting both Valencia and Jelavic up front is a possibility (with Valencia ostensibly on the left), as are youngsters Cullen and Oxford (whose loan move to Charlton fell through) in midfield. Knowing how much he loves punishing Liverpool – a vital player in West Ham’s last three wins over Liverpool – Noble will probably make a miraculous recovery.

No matter who starts, Liverpool need to not do what they’ve done in three of the last four matches against West Ham. Actually play defense. Don’t concede stupid set plays, because you’ll probably concede a stupid goal from said set play. And don’t concede early; in the last three West Ham wins over Liverpool, West Ham scored in the 2nd, 7th, 3rd, and 10th minutes. From there, Liverpool have been unable to make amends, unable to break through an unsurprisingly deep defense after handing the opposition an early lead, a lead that opposition eventually extends on one or more counter-attacks.

The league is the league; Liverpool have disappointed, Liverpool are seventh, but Liverpool are only (“only”) eight points off fourth with 15 games to play. Fifth place is just three points ahead. Liverpool are in the League Cup final. Liverpool are still in Europe. Right or wrong (hint: right), this competition is Liverpool’s lowest priority.

Of course you want to win. Of course you want another cup run, remembering how trips to Wembley in both the League Cup and FA Cup in 2011-12 nearly saved Dalglish’s job. But it can’t, and it won’t, come at a cost to the squad, or at a cost to Liverpool’s other campaigns.

Again, West Ham is not Exeter, but the two legs against Exeter were fun (mostly…) because the kids were fun. Let’s have another opportunity to see if the kids are alright. They can’t do any worse than the senior players have against West Ham recently.

27 January 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Stoke aet [6-5 pens]

Previous Match Infographics: Norwich (a), Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), Norwich (h), Bordeaux (a), Manchester United (a), West Ham (h), Arsenal (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a)

Now that we're at the semi-final stage, WhoScored is finally collecting stats in this competition.

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

Two sides that fully canceled each other out. Or, should have, had one of the linesman actually done his job. A match that was high in intensity and low on quality. A match that featured an absolutely garbage attacking performance from both sides, although some credit is due to the defenses, with Liverpool's attacking issues both familiar and frustrating.

Who cares? Liverpool are going to Wembley.

Liverpool were Liverpool, Stoke were Stoke (and more Tony Pulis' Stoke than Mark Hughes' Stoke), and a second leg semi-final was a second leg semi-final. Hard-fought and closely-matched, and not especially fun to watch, for either supporters or neutrals.

Almost the same side which scored five on Saturday probably wouldn't have scored in this match were it still going. Just 12 shots in 120 minutes. Just three inside the box. Just one in the Danger Zone. Just two on-target, both from Roberto Firmino. Just one marginally threatening: one of those Firmino shots, from Henderson's layoff on a set play, saved onto the post by Butland.

That's not good. That's really, really not good. Liverpool's attack hasn't been good in most matches under Klopp (or Rodgers, for that matter), but I'm still struggling to think of a less impressive performance. Maybe the 0-2 loss at Newcastle, where Liverpool took just 10 shots and put just one on-target – Lovren in the last minute – but even then, half of those shots came inside the box and Liverpool had a perfectly good (in fact, great) goal from Moreno wrongly ruled out.

It wasn't Liverpool's finishing which nearly cost the side, as is more often the case, but Liverpool's ability to create, Liverpool's decision-making, and Liverpool's shot selection. Stoke defended deep and defended well, but nine of 12 shots coming from outside the box – including all four before Stoke's goal – also demonstrates Liverpool's priority on defense. Or, at least, lack of prioritizing the attack. Take the speculative shot and maybe you'll get lucky, but more importantly, make sure you're in place to press then get back and defend.

Still, that wouldn't have mattered had the linesman done his job just before halftime. Sure, Liverpool still conceded from the first shot on-target – yes, again – but otherwise, it was a reasonably competent display in defense. Liverpool coped with Stoke's set plays, Liverpool coped with Stoke's crosses and long balls, Liverpool coped with Crouch's height.

Mark Hughes had obviously watched Liverpool's matches since the last meeting, starting Peter Crouch for just the fifth time this season – all in cup competition – to unsettle Liverpool's defense with height, crosses, set plays, and hoofs, with Jon Walters also coming into the side to muscle defenders and offer an option running in behind. But Liverpool's back line (which kept a surprisingly high line) did enough, winning the second ball if not the aerial duel enough, and blocking enough dangerous efforts (Sakho, most notably on Walters in the 55th minute, but also on Walters in the 62nd and Crouch in the 114th) when they didn't.

Stoke created just four shots from set plays: two very off-target headers from Bojan and Crouch, and two very off-target shots from distance by Johnson and Afellay.

And, again, that first Stoke shot on-target was very offside, and that was the one lovely attacking move of the match. For either side. Stoke had two other good chances: a hoof over the high back line to Walters in the first half, pushed wide of the far post, and van Ginkel's scramble through the middle in extra time off the woodwork – the second, after the "goal," of Stoke's two clear-cut chances. Liverpool, unsurprisingly, created none.

Then, Liverpool's rightfully criticized goalkeeper saved two Stoke penalties, while six of Liverpool's seven players kept their nerves (and Can's penalty didn't miss by much). Jack Butland, who has been one of the best keepers in the league this season, didn't get a hand to any of Liverpool's spot kicks, and went the wrong way on six of the seven; Mignolet saved two and nearly saved another, guessing the right way on five. Shoot-outs are weird.

But Liverpool have precedent here. Liverpool have now won 14 of the 17 shoot-outs they've been involved in, a record going back to 1974. And two of those losses have been in the last six years: against Northampton Town and Besiktas. That's remarkable. Unbelievable. And probably more than a little bit lucky. But winning begets winning.

If Liverpool play like that in most matches, Liverpool won't win most matches: slightly better than usual in defense, but very, very bad in attack. But this wasn't most matches. This was a knife-edge cup semifinal and Liverpool, despite losing on the day, still won.

And winning begets winning. And winning begets Wembley.

25 January 2016

Liverpool v Stoke 01.25.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 01.05.16
1-0 Liverpool (h) 08.09.15
1-6 Stoke (a) 05.24.15
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.29.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-4 Norwich (a); 3-0 Exeter (h); 0-1 United (a)
Stoke: 0-3 Leicester (a); 0-0 Arsenal (h); 3-1 Norwich (h)

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: 1-0 Stoke (a); 6-1 Southampton (a); 1-0 Bournemouth (h); 1-1 Carlisle aet [3-2 pens] (h)
Stoke: 0-1 Liverpool (h); 2-0 Sheff Wed (h); 1-1 Chelsea aet [5-4 pens] (h); 1-0 Fulham (a); 1-1 Luton aet [8-7 pens] (a)

Goalscorers (League Cup):
Liverpool: Origi 3; Ibe, Sturridge 2; Clyne, Ings 1
Stoke: Walters 2; Affelay, Bardsley, Crouch 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Toure Sakho Moreno
Henderson Lucas Can
Milner Firmino Lallana

Once again, it'll be a familiar Liverpool, but once again, Jürgen Klopp has a few tough choices to make due to both recent and lingering injuries as well as fixture congestion.

You have to assume Lallana's replacing Ibe in the starting XI, Ibe noticeably unimpressive while Lallana changed the game, responsible for an assist to make it 3-3 and a 95th-minute goal to make it 5-4 on Saturday.

Lovren's available for the first time since his injury at Stoke, but does he return straight away or does Klopp stick with Toure and Sakho? Consistency in defense is usually a good thing, but might not be for a defense that conceded four goals to Norwich on Saturday, and eight goals in its last three matches.

Meanwhile, Nat Clyne's doubtful with a knee problem incurred against Norwich. Can he play through it, will Liverpool hand Jon Flanagan a first start since the last day of 2013-14, or will 20-year-old Connor Randall start in a cup semi-final, in what would be just his fifth-ever start for the club?

Can Lucas play another 90 minutes just three days, a third start in the last nine days? And if he can't, is he replaced by Allen – basically a straight swap – or Ibe or Benteke, switching Liverpool to more of a 4-2-3-1?

It's hard to draw many conclusions about Stoke's form from what they've done since the last meeting, because they've been consistently inconsistent. A narrow win with a much-changed side in the FA Cup. A straight-forward 3-1 home win over Norwich. A deserved but tepid 0-0 home draw with Arsenal, offering little in attack but excellent in defense. And finally, an absolute demolition by Leicester at Leicester, an emphatic 0-3 set-back, in a match where Stoke has to replace its captain and best defender in Shawcross due to injury, and where both Bojan and Arnautovic were protected due to minor injuries.

While nowhere near as bad Liverpool's casualty list, Stoke will be missing a couple of key players as well. Both Geoff Cameron and Shawcross will be absent. But after missing out against at Leicester, both Bojan and Arnautovic should be available.

Marc Wilson came on in place of Shawcross on Saturday, but Muniesa's also an option in central defense. In Cameron's absence, Affelay has played in central midfield with Whelan – as he did after Walters replaced Cameron at halftime in the previous meeting – with Bojan as the #10 and Joselu up front, but Hughes could play slightly more conservative tomorrow, with either van Ginkel or Adam partnering Whelan and Affelay further forward. And. lurking in the background, as seemingly always, is Jon Walters, a player who could start up front or in the attacking line of three, and a player who loves to face Liverpool.

Still, it's probably safe to assume that Butland; Johnson, Wilson, Wollscheid, Pieters; Whelan, Affelay; Shaqiri, Bojan, Arnautovic; Joselu will be the starting XI.

Can Liverpool do what they did in the last leg? There, Liverpool started the brighter side, took the game to Stoke, coped with injuries to Coutinho and Lovren, and made the breakthrough in the 37th minute. And for the next hour or so, Liverpool were pinned back, with Stoke dominating possession, attempting more shots (15) than all but one opponent that Liverpool faced since Klopp became manager. Stoke had more than 60% possession; Stoke completed more than twice as many passes as Liverpool.

But somehow Liverpool won, clinging on to its 1-0 lead, mostly smothering Stoke despite Stoke's overwhelming control, most of those 15 Stoke shots failing to threaten.

It was similar to how Liverpool beat both Leicester and Sunderland in the run-in to that match, even if Liverpool were the "better" side in both of those victories. it's certainly not how Liverpool have played since: conceding three against Arsenal, conceding one against United which was very much against the run of play, and conceding four – four! – against Norwich.

Can Liverpool be as diligent and secure, protecting their slender first-leg advantage, and maybe even extending that first-leg advantage? Will Liverpool sit back with seven or eight outfield players in their defensive half before counter-attack at pace with Firmino, Lallana, Ibe and/or Milner? Or will Liverpool look to take the game to Stoke, push the opposition back, searching for what would be a very helpful second goal before applying the breaks?

I've no idea. But it'll decide who travels to Wembley for a cup final: Stoke for the first time in this competition for 40-plus years, or Liverpool in Jürgen Klopp's first season. And both sides could desperately use the boost that a cup final brings.

Visualized: Liverpool 5-4 Norwich

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester Utd (h), Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), 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.

How do you summarize that? I guess we'll start with something that Liverpool did surprisingly well, for a pleasant change.

Liverpool actually finished their chances, for the first time in a long time. 13 shots is Liverpool's fewest since Watford (a), and the third-lowest since Klopp became manager. At the least, it's the first time in a long time without Daniel Sturridge – 6-1 at Southampton a mix of his prowess and opposition which seemingly gave up after conceding a third.

Seven of 13 shots on-target – 53.8% – is Liverpool's third-highest in the league this season behind 63.4% in 4-1 City (Liverpool at their absolute best) and 57.2% in 3-2 Villa (Sturridge).

Firmino's second, Henderson's, and Milner's goals were wonderfully taken, shots that each have struggled with this season. Firmino's first, which I initially thought was off-target, was probably going in anyway, and from a very acute angle. Only Lallana's winner seemed fortunate, hit into the ground, looping and unsaveable.

Saturday also saw the first time Liverpool have scored two clear-cut chances since that 4-1 win at Manchester City, only the second time it's happened in a league match this season.

Roberto Firmino finding form is, unsurprisingly, a massive part of these positives. Two braces in his last three starts, five goals and three assists (which should be four, if setting up an OG actually counted as an assist) in his six league starts as the lone striker: Norwich, United, Arsenal, Watford, City, and Chelsea. Three wins – where Firmino has three goals and three assists – two losses, and a draw.

But while Firmino has been crucial, Liverpool's improvement when it comes to both mid-game alterations and overcoming setbacks have been just as important, if not more so.

We've now seen eight goals from substitutes since Klopp became manager: six the league, one in each domestic cup. Those six substitute goals in the league have earned Liverpool seven points: a point against Southampton (a draw that should have been a win), a point against West Brom, two points against Leicester, a point against Arsenal, and two points at Norwich. Five substitute goals, five of the eight, with Liverpool either level or behind, all in the league.

The last time a Liverpool substitute scored under Brendan Rodgers? Mario Balotelli's penalty against Besiktas in the Europa League 11 months ago. In the league? Again, Balotelli, the winner against Spurs a week before Besiktas. Liverpool substitutes scored seven goals in total last season: four in the league, two in the League Cup, one in the Europa League: Balotelli 3; Coutinho, Lambert, Sturridge, Suso 1.

And then there's the fact that Liverpool actually came back to win despite going behind, something else that rarely happened under Rodgers. Last time it happened in the league? 3-1 at Leicester, December 2014. Under Klopp, Liverpool also did it at Chelsea in the league, against Bordeaux in the Europa League, and at Southampton in the League Cup.

The last time Liverpool came back from a two-goal deficit under Rodgers, in any competition? Never. Not even to draw, let alone win. If Liverpool went two goals down under the previous manager – which, to be fair, didn't happen all that often – that was it. Game over.

For all Liverpool's faults, for all the lingering issues that haven't improved under the new manager, self-belief and an ability to recover from misfortune have certainly gotten better. We've come a long way since Klopp mused about how alone he felt after Southampton's late equalizer at Anfield three months ago.

But there's also the argument that Saturday was irregular, out of the ordinary, and probably not often repeatable. Liverpool haven't won by this scoreline since May 2001, the UEFA Cup Final against Deportivo Alaves, needing extra time to achieve that result. That was the last time Liverpool let in four goals but still won the match; it hasn't happened in the league since April 1991, a 5-4 win at Leeds. Nearly 25 years ago. Before the Premier League was actually the Premier League.

Liverpool conceded three in the league three times yet still won in 2013-14 – 5-3 at Stoke, 4-3 v Swansea, 6-3 at Cardiff – but that was a nonsensical season in so many ways. Yet Liverpool never conceded four in a match that season, despite that defense's propensity for hilarity.

Since the beginning of 2005-06, in the last decade, Liverpool have conceded four in a league match just six times: Saturday; 1-6 at Stoke and 1-4 at Arsenal in 2014-15; 0-4 at Tottenham in 2011-12; 4-4 v Arsenal in 2008-09; 1-4 at Chelsea in 2005-06. It's not a common occurrence. It shouldn't be a common occurrence. And half of them have happened in the last calendar year.

So, yeah, there are still multiple problems at the other end of the pitch. Again. Conceding from a corner for the eighth time in the league. Conceding from the first shot on-target for the 13th time in the league. Conceding an equalizer just 11 minutes after taking a 1-0 lead; Liverpool have conceded within 20 minutes of taking the lead 10 times this season: Bordeaux, Norwich, Carlisle, and Sion under Rodgers; Southampton, West Brom, Arsenal (twice) and Norwich (twice) under Klopp.

These are issues we've encountered before.

And every single goal that Liverpool conceded seemed preventable. Uncleared set plays for the first and fourth. Lucas and Can both fully aware where Naismith is before he starts his run for the second, both in position to track his run, neither bothering to actually track said run, with the added bonus of Naismith's no-angle shot sneaking in under Mignolet's wrist. An absolutely brain-dead Moreno penalty for the third, and another shot Mignolet could have saved – although, to be fair, any penalty save is an unexpected bonus.

Liverpool again allow few shots, but the ones they allow are good chances, even if Saturday's were less good than usual: needing a back heel, wide-box shot, out-box shot, and penalty. Still, six Norwich shots in total, four goals. One shot on-target saved from the last seven shots on-target faced. Liverpool's save percentage in the league is now below 60% for the first time this season, and still the second-worst in the league behind only Bournemouth.

Of course, I'm sure every single Norwich supporter feels the opposite about the goals. 'Ours were the good goals! Yours were either preventable or flukes! A back-heel! Naismith's excellent run! A deserved penalty! Bassong from long range! Rudd nearly saving Firmino's first, only for his touch to spin it into the net off the post; Henderson not tracked for the second, with another lucky touch from Firmino to set it up; the entire defense stupidly out of position for the third; an insane back pass for the fourth; two failed clearances and a mis-hit lucky finish for the fifth.'

But, yeah, that's football. And what Saturday reminded me, more than all the above statistics and opinion, is that football can be really, really fun. We haven't been reminded of that nearly often enough.

23 January 2016

Liverpool 5-4 Norwich

Firmino 18' 63'
Mbokani 29'
Naismith 41'
Hoolahan 54' (pen)
Henderson 55'
Milner 75'
Bassong 90+3'
Lallana 90+5'

Thankfully, Norwich were more Norwich than Liverpool were Liverpool. Five bloody four. I can't even.

It was the best of Liverpool and the worst of Liverpool and nothing in between. And the best eked out a victory over the worst. Barely. So many Liverpool mistakes at the back – from set plays, from open play – and not for the first time, but a surprising amount of fight up front. The much-mocked "character." Five goals in a league match for the first time since Luis Suarez was a Liverpool player. Coming back from two goals down, then finding an 95th minute winner after conceding an equalizer in the 93rd.

12 shots on-target from the two sides led to nine goals. Defending is dead, and you're urinating on the ashes.

Stop me if you're heard this one before. Liverpool score first, but the opposition equalize. The opposition equalize from a corner, its first corner no less. The opposition equalizer from its first shot on-target.

Firmino's opener came from a surprisingly decent move: Moreno bombs down the left, centers to Milner, a throughball to Firmino, his shot off Rudd but also off the post into the goal. But Liverpool fail to push on from the opener, Milner fails to even get a shot off when one-on-one with the keeper three minutes later, delaying just long enough to allow Brady to make a recovery tackle. And Norwich grow into the game. And 11 minutes after Liverpool score, Liverpool concede: a corner not cleared, Norwich beating Liverpool to three of four aerial duels, Toure losing who he's supposed to be marking and Mbokani controlling in front of Sakho before a clever back-heel which beats Mignolet. It took Liverpool 13 minutes to concede an equalizer from a corner after scoring the opener in the reverse fixture.

You're supposed to be getting better, not worse.

It's the 10th-consecutive league match where if Liverpool concede, it's from the first shot on-target that Liverpool allow. It's the 9th time that Liverpool conceded an equalizer after taking a 1-0 lead: five times in Rodgers' 11 matches, four times in Klopp's 24 matches. This was the first match that Liverpool won, at least within 90 minutes, needing penalties to beat Carlisle 1-1.

29 minutes gone, an unnecessary but not unexpected equalizer conceded. Liverpool knocked back. Liverpool on tilt, conceding a second when Can and Lucas obstinately refused to track Naismith's run, a no-angle shot somehow beating Mignolet. Liverpool conceding a third when Moreno twice fouled Naismith in the box, the first uncalled, the second so obvious it actually hurt, with Mignolet guessing correctly on Hoolahan's penalty but unable to stop it.

Three Norwich shots on-target. Three Norwich goals. Combine that with Arsenal's third goal and United's lone goal, and Liverpool had conceded five goals from the last five shots on-target in the league. Mignolet's certainly earning that new contract.

1-3 down. An early kickoff away from home. An underwhelming, to say the least, Liverpool performance. Opposition that Liverpool should really be beating, that has no right to be two goals ahead of Liverpool before an hour's gone. Seemingly, 0-2 at West Ham all over again.

But a minute after Norwich's third, Liverpool pull one back: Liverpool build from the back, Clyne's cross, Firmino's touch on, Henderson's half volley from 12 yards out. And Liverpool slowly, surely, reassert themselves upon proceedings, aided immensely by the often (and rightfully) criticized Adam Lallana. Firmino gets his second, Liverpool's equalizer, when Liverpool quickly break from the back down the left: Firmino to Milner to Lallana, a first-time cross to a wide-open Firmino, one touch, goal. Milner gives Liverpool the lead thanks to Russell Martin's unbelievable blind back-pass, Liverpool finally scoring when a player's one-on-one with the opposition keeper, making amends for the earlier untaken chance in the 21st minute.

4-3, with 15 minutes to go. Just don't do anything stupid. Ha.

For 18 minutes, Liverpool "succeeded." Hoof, clear, regroup. Fine. Sure, it's Norwich, but any port in a storm. Then, in the 93rd minute, a deep free kick when Benteke was stupidly, unnecessarily caught offside. Thumped forward, Liverpool unable to win the header. A bouncing ball, hammered in by Bassong – off all people; a player who hadn't scored a league goal since December 2012 – from just outside the box, only the second league goal that Liverpool have conceded from outside the box this season. It was 1-1 Everton from last season all over again, Jagielka's injury-time stroke of fortune from the exact same spot.

4-4. Two points dropped, then three points gained, then two points dropped, again. Yet another draw despite having the lead. Twice, in fact. Everything gained, then everything lost, then everything gained, then everything lost.

Sigh. Norwich hadn't scored four in a Premier League match since May 2013. 62 matches before this.

Somehow, Liverpool weren't done, and it was Lallana – Lallana! – with his first league goal since May, after Can's left-footed cross, Caulker and Benteke in the box and refusing to let Norwich clear, Lallana finding the loose ball with a left-footed strike into the ground that looped over Rudd. With basically the last kick of the game.

Football is insane sometimes. This is why we watch football. Of course, it'd be much easier to appreciate the insanity of this game, the brilliance of this comeback, if we hadn't seen these mistakes from Liverpool time and time and time and time again.

Liverpool live at DEFCON 1, imminent danger perpetually imminent. Liverpool can concede against any opposition from any position, early and often. Corners and opposition shots on-target have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the side clearly aware of the same awful statistics that we're aware of, always expecting the worst. And rarely disappointed.

But Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool can also, at least, battle back. Liverpool can take four punches and sometimes, somehow, deliver their own fifth. Liverpool can go absolutely mad at both ends of the pitch, then go absolutely mad with their manger in celebration in the final minute of added time. As against West Brom, as against Arsenal, with the added bonus of all three points this time. Three very much needed points.

Football is brilliant and football is stupid, and that's why we love it. Football should be emotional. Football should be ecstatic yelps and emphatic tears. Football should be 90 minutes of hell and heaven, not 90 minutes of sterility. This is why we watch sport.

Never forget to enjoy it when it works in your favor.

22 January 2016

Liverpool at Norwich 1.23.16

7:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 09.20.15
3-2 Liverpool (a) 04.20.14
5-1 Liverpool (h) 12.04.13
5-0 Liverpool (h) 01.19.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Exeter (h); 0-1 United (h); 3-3 Arsenal (h)
Norwich: 0-3 Bournemouth (a); 1-3 Stoke (a); 0-3 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 6; Coutinho 5; Firmino 3; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Allen, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
Norwich: Redmond 4; Howson, Jerome, Martin, Mbokani 3; Hoolahan, Tettey 2; Brady, Grabban, Jarvis, Whittaker 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Toure Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can Milner
Firmino Benteke Ibe

As if Liverpool didn't have enough injury issues, Lallana's now doubtful with a muscle problem. Coutinho, Sturridge, Origi, et al unsurprisingly remain absent. At this rate, Liverpool will have no senior attackers left.

Despite Benteke and Ibe both playing 90 minutes of Wednesday, you'd assume at least one of them, and probably both, would have to start, whether in the above 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 with Ibe on the right, Milner on the left, and Firmino drifting centrally around Benteke.

The only other option seems 4-4-2 diamond: a midfield with four from Lucas, Henderson, Can, Milner, and Allen behind Firmino and Benteke. I worry about Henderson or Milner's ability to create from the apex of the diamond, but otherwise, that's actually not a bad option. Liverpool will almost certainly dominate possession. This formation would allow the four-man midfield to control tenor and tempo while fullbacks provide the width and both Benteke and Firmino (ideally) challenge Norwich's center backs. Play through the middle through Firmino, cross to Benteke, with at least two runners from midfield making those needed and dangerous runs into the box.

You never know; maybe a new formation will actually help Liverpool score goals for a change. Otherwise, same old, same old in defense. Lovren and Skrtel are still out, Clyne and Moreno will remain ever-present (although it is reassuring to see competition from Smith on the left and the returning Flanagan on the right). The goals remain "don't do anything stupid," "defend the damned set plays," and "hey, maybe save the opposition's first shot on-target." Liverpool, somehow, have kept a clean sheet in the last six matches (all competitions) when saving the first shot on-target. Liverpool are weird.

Maybe Tuesday's second leg cup semi-final will come into play, and Liverpool will deploy a slightly weaker XI than expected, but given the injury situation and recent results, I suspect Liverpool will just have to pick its XI for this match, and hope everything works out for the next. No matter Liverpool's current form or position, the league isn't the FA Cup.

Meanwhile, Norwich are on a bit of a slide, losing their last three matches, allowing three goals in each of those matches. Don't get excited. Liverpool are still Liverpool and Norwich have still been surprisingly good at home: unbeaten in the league at Carrow Road since October 24, with draws against Arsenal and Everton, and wins over Swansea, Villa, and Southampton.

Amazingly for this time of year, Norwich have no one injured. Gary O'Neil is suspended and Andre Wisdom is ineligible, but neither would start anyway. They've signed Steven Naismith, Timo Klose (center-back), Ivo Pinto (right-back), and Ben Godfrey (18-year-old midfielder) this month, and at least two – Naismith and Klose – will probably debut. Naismith's routinely played well against Liverpool when starting for Everton, even if he's only scored once in his four starts, with Everton and Liverpool finishing level in each of those matches.

So let's guess Naismith and Klose start, and that Redmond comes back into the side after appearing as a substitute in the last couple of matches. Norwich's XI should be Rudd; Martin, Bassong, Klose, Brady; Howson, Tettey; Naismith, Hoolahan, Redmond; Mbokani. Vadis Odjidja-Ofe could keep his place ahead of Redmond; Naismith could start up front if Norwich want to rely even more heavily on the counter-attack; Dorrans could be the third in midfield if Norwich line up in a 4-3-3; Ruddy could come back in for Rudd in goal after the latter's three concessions in the last two matches.

Tomorrow's match can seemingly go one of two ways. It could be Newcastle or Watford, where Liverpool fail to break down a resilient defense away from home, struggle to create chances, struggle to score, and concede one or more against the run of play. Or it could be Sunderland or Stoke, where Liverpool thankfully stay secure and eventually eke out a needed winner.

Frighteningly, seven of Norwich's 24 league goals have come from set plays. Which doesn't seem like a lot – hell, Liverpool are terrible at set plays and they've scored five – but that's 29.2% of all Norwich's goals. Only West Brom and Crystal Palace have a higher percentage scored from set plays. Liverpool conceded set play goals against both West Brom and Palace. And Norwich, in the reverse fixture. Sigh.

Liverpool still haven't won a league match in 2016: losing to West Ham and United, drawing with Arsenal. Liverpool still haven't been anywhere near good enough at either end of the pitch for weeks, if not months. Liverpool are still deservedly ninth, eight points off fourth and unable to make ground up in a narrow, unimpressive league.

Liverpool simply need to be better.

19 January 2016

Liverpool v Exeter City 01.20.16

3pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (a; FA Cup) 01.08.16
3-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 08.24.11
6-0 Liverpool (a: League Cup) 10.28.81
5-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.07.81

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 United (h); 3-3 Arsenal (h); 2-2 Exeter (a)
Exeter: 3-1 Leyton Orient (a); 1-1 Morecambe (a); 2-2 Liverpool (h)

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: 2-2 Exeter (a)
Exeter: 2-2 Liverpool (h); 2-0 Port Vale (h); 3-0 Didcot Town (A)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Benteke 7; Coutinho 5; Origi, Sturridge 4; Firmino, Ibe, Ings, Milner 3; Lallana 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Henderson, Sinclair, Skrtel, Smith 1
Exeter: Nichols 10; Wheeler 7; Nicholls 6; Harley 5; Grant, Holmes, Stockley 3; Morrison 2; Brown, Davies, Hoskins, McCready, Oyeleke, Reid, Ribeiro, Tillson, Watkins 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Guess at a line-up:
Randall Lucas Ilori Smith
Brannagan Stewart
Kent Teixeira Ojo

There won't be many, if any, changes from the side that drew at Exeter two weeks ago, and rightfully so. The squad's still too injured, too fatigued, and – honestly – too mediocre. Either the kids will be alright, or they won't be.

Both Danny Ward and Steven Caulker – recalled from loan and signed on loan respectively – aren't eligible, as both (re)joined Liverpool after the first meeting. Which means the center-back situation is still ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and either Bogdan or Mignolet will start in goal and otherwise, probably the same as last time.

As long as Liverpool don't start Jose Enrique again, I'm not especially bothered by who plays at center-back. But it's not as if Liverpool have many, any options. Toure and Sakho have started two matches in the last week. Skrtel's still injured, Lovren's probably still injured, Dan Cleary's making his comeback from injury with the u21s tonight. Flanagan *can* play at center-back, but he'll be on the bench at best, at least. Can Kevin Stewart, used as a midfielder last time, but having featured as a full-back in previous Liverpool preseasons, play at center-back? How about left-back Joe Maguire, who came on when Ilori pulled up with cramp late in the last meeting?

So, Liverpool's options are either Toure or Sakho, respite be damned; Can or Lucas, preferred position and respite be damned; or one of the above probably-far-fetched square pegs in round holes. As long as its not Jose Enrique. I'll guess Lucas, even though he played 90 hard minutes against United, because he's at least not likely to start against Norwich on Saturday. And because he's not Jose Enrique.

Sheyi Ojo replacing Jerome Sinclair – solely because of the news that Sinclair won't sign a new deal and will leave in the summer – is my only other guessed change. Also, Ojo's great, the player I'm most excited to see tomorrow. Maybe the underused Joe Allen comes into midfield. Maybe Sinclair starts anyway, with or in place of the struggling Benteke. Whatever. Just play as you did last time, but a bit better, as you've gotten 90 minutes of match practice and more than half a training session. And don't concede two stupid goals either.

I wouldn't expect many, if any, changes for Exeter either. Since drawing with Liverpool, they've drawn with 13th-placed Morecambe, a point ahead of Exeter in the table, and beaten 11th-placed Leyton Orient, three points ahead of Exeter in the table. Remember, Exeter had lost four consecutive matches before the draw with Liverpool.

They've a new loan signing as well – Jayden Stockley, with three goals in the last two games – who's ineligible. Their second-top scorer, David Wheeler, still hasn't featured since missing the first meeting through injury. Aside from Stockley, the only change from the first Liverpool match and the weekend win over Orient was Butterfield rather than Tillson – who's usually a defender – in midfield. Butterfield gave away two penalties, both missed, in that match.

Let's assume Exeter deploy the same XI. And even if there are one or two changes, let's assume Exeter are still Exeter, basically the archetype of a League Two side. They're hard-working and physical. There will be lots of tackles and lots of running. They like to counter-attack and like to cross – two features which Liverpool often struggle with. Ben Mayhew's outstanding scatter plot graphics show how they're basically league average as far as attack and defense goes – a bit better in attack, a bit worse in defense, both demonstrated in the last meeting – which is in line with their current mid-table position. But, as in the last meeting, expect Exeter to play 50% better than usual, because it's against Liverpool, because it's at Anfield, seizing an opportunity they wouldn't normally (and may not again) ever have.

But, this time, Liverpool's kids and exiles will have had more than half a training session of time together. Liverpool's kids and exiles will be on a pitch actually conducive to playing football. Liverpool's kids and exiles will be in front of their own. Liverpool's kids and exiles again have a chance to prove their worth and stake a claim for a place in the side and a place in the next round.

This competition has become the lowest priority, at least at the moment, due to injuries, a shallow squad, and participation in the League Cup semifinals. But it's still a priority, made even more so by the participation of those kids and exiles, who have chances they normally wouldn't receive.

If Liverpool do what Liverpool should – which is never a certainty – Liverpool will win. But it's up to those kids and exiles to make full use of their chances.

18 January 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-1 Manchester Utd

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (h), Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), 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.

You're sick of me complaining about Liverpool's attack. I'm sick of complaining about Liverpool's attack. We've done this before and we've done it to death. Take better shots, create better chances, put more shots on target, convert the ones you actually put on target, etc. Get better players.

Let's complain about the other end of the pitch instead.

• Six of the last 13 goals that Liverpool have conceded came from corners.

• Liverpool have conceded seven Premier League goals from corners, more than any other side (Bournemouth, Everton, Leicester, Newcastle have conceded six).

• Seven of the last 10 goals that Liverpool have conceded were scored by the opposition's striker.

• 33 of the 36 goals that Liverpool have conceded in all competitions this season came in the Danger Zone.

• Liverpool have now conceded 25 Premier League goals from 47 shots on-target in the Danger Zone, an unbelievably bad 46.8% save percentage.

• Liverpool's overall Premier League save percentage is an abominable 62.5%, the second-worst in the league.

• And Liverpool's opponents have scored with their first shot on-target in the last nine Premier League matches that Liverpool have conceded in. Manchester United, Arsenal, West Ham, Watford, West Brom, Newcastle, Man City, Crystal Palace, and Chelsea. Otherwise known as: corner, counter-attack, cross, corner, corner, counter-attack, counter-attack, low cross + error, and cross. In total, Liverpool conceded from the first shot on-target in 12 of the 15 league games where Liverpool have conceded. And three of the four Europa League matches where Liverpool have conceded. And both of the League Cup matches where Liverpool have conceded. And the one FA Cup match where Liverpool conceded, with, admittedly, a much different side. 18 of the 23 matches in all competitions where Liverpool have conceded this season. Good lord. That's incredible.

Yesterday saw the same problems we've seen time and time again this season, made worse by who Liverpool were playing. Because everything's always amplified against United.

If Liverpool were better in attack, it'd help cover up these issues in defense. If Liverpool were better in defense – and despite these stats, they're not that bad – it'd help compensate for the terrible attack, as it did against Leicester, Stoke (League Cup), Sunderland, etc. I still think the attack is the bigger concern – if Lallana converts his 10th-minute clear cut chance (or Firmino the follow-up, or, or, or…), we're probably not having this discussion – but Liverpool's issues in defense remain almost as harmful. Almost.

Right now, Liverpool are decent, if not honestly good, in the middle third of the pitch. And they very much were yesterday, against a United side that controls tempo, tenor, and possession in most every match. Liverpool do some things well, and most of those things have improved under Liverpool's new manager. But Liverpool are bad at the other ends. Both ends. And that's where the game's usually decided.

Liverpool's set play defense is bad, and as Paul Tomkins correctly noted, Liverpool's lack of height has a lot to do with that.

Liverpool's goalkeeper – whether Mignolet or Bogdan – is both often bad as well as error-prone, although in Mignolet's defense, there wasn't much he could do to stop yesterday's winner.

Liverpool's defense doesn't allow a lot of shots – United only took seven; Liverpool have allowed 10 or more opposition shots in just four of Klopp's 14 PL matches – but when they do, they tend to be very good shots. And I'm not entirely sure why, although I expect it's some combination of a high press that leaves Liverpool exposed at times, a dominance in possession leading to counter-attacks that leave Liverpool exposed at times, constant center-back changes due to injuries to Sakho, Skrtel, and Lovren, and Liverpool's awful set play defense.

I don't know the solution, at either end of the pitch (buying better players in attack is where I'd start). But I know that these issues haven't gone away, and don't seem to be anytime soon.

17 January 2016

Liverpool 0-1 Manchester United

Rooney 78'

The bad old days. The tactics were a little different, the XI was a little different, but the problems were the same and the result was the same.

This was last season, this was a very Brendan Rodgers match against Manchester United. All the faults, none of the benefits. For the first time in a "big match" under Jürgen Klopp.

Liverpool aren't great, but are the better side? Check.

Liverpool dramatically out-shoot the opposition? Check.

Liverpool waste countless chances? Check.

Liverpool concede on a set play against the run of play? Check.

On a corner? Check.

From the opposition's first shot on-target? Check.


This fixture was this fixture: contentious, close-fought, and not especially full of quality.

Liverpool did a lot of good things. Liverpool pressed well, Liverpool limited counter-attacking opportunities. Liverpool won the midfield battle: Schneiderlin invisible, Lucas the metronome and actually outmuscling Fellaini in the air. Liverpool actually combined well in the final third a few times. Liverpool created a handful of good chances; not enough, but that's how this fixture goes. Some were spurned, and some were saved by a goalkeeper who constantly plays out of his mind against Liverpool.

But Liverpool couldn't finish. Too many low-percentage shots off-target, too many shots from distance, Lallana denied from Lucas' long ball in the 10th, Can wonderfully denied from distance in the 67th, Firmino unable to control in the six-yard box, possibly not realizing he was onside, only able to flick directly to De Gea in the 89th minute.

And Liverpool did a bad thing, an all-too-familiar bad thing. United's fourth corner after the first three were actually well-defended. Taken short to change the angle, Henderson losing Fellaini and Sakho jumping too soon, a header off the bar but slammed in by Rooney, who'd found space by shoving Lucas.

And then Liverpool lost.

Manchester United were Manchester United: they're certainly not awe-inspiring, but reasonably secure when they focus on keeping it tight. United are competent in defense or competent in attack – rarely, if ever, both – and unsurprisingly focused on defending. So they kept Liverpool from scoring, and assumed they'd eventually have a chance from a counter-attack or set play. And that's exactly what happened.

You want to avoid overreacting because of the opposition and result, but it's hard to avoid. Liverpool simply aren't good enough up front. The side works hard, but the squad has few, if any, match-winners and goal-scorers. Christian Benteke remains Liverpool's top scorer. Christian Benteke is Liverpool's only available out-and-out striker. Christian Benteke didn't come off the bench until Liverpool went behind, given the last 10 minutes and hoofs and crosses, and doing nothing with them. That's a damning indictment.

Meanwhile, there's Lallana and Milner, the two who joined the still-improving, still-learning, still-inconsistent, not-really-a-striker Firmino in attack. Quite good without the ball. Quite bad with it, especially the final pass or shot. They are a perfect microcosm for this side. Liverpool's attack needs to be completely revamped, but that's not happening until the summer. We're just gonna have to deal with the ride until then.

Fourth place was already gone, but that's fourth place officially gone. You've still got the cups, Liverpool. That, along with continuing to implement Klopp's ideas and – you know – trying to stop conceding on *multiple expletives deleted* set plays, is probably all you've got.

16 January 2016

Liverpool v Manchester United 1.17.16

9:05am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 United (a) 09.12.15
1-2 United (h) 03.22.15
0-3 United (a) 12.14.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.15.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-3 Arsenal (h); 2-2 Exeter (a); 1-0 Stoke (a)
United: 3-3 Newcastle (a); 1-0 Sheffield Utd (h); 2-1 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 6; Coutinho 5; Firmino 3; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Allen, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
United: Martial, Rooney 5; Mata 4; Herrera, Lingard, Memphis 2; Blind, Fellaini, Januzaj, Scheniderlin, Schweinsteiger 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Caulker Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can
Ibe Lallana Milner

I can't foresee many changes from Wednesday's comeback draw against Arsenal, both because of Liverpool's performance in that match and Liverpool's still shallow squad.

We'll probably see Caulker replace Toure or Sakho. Both have trouble playing two matches in four days: Sakho because of knee issues, Toure due to age. Caulker has now trained for a couple of days, and is vastly quicker than Toure, which might well be necessary if Martial starts up front.

We could see Lucas for one of the attackers: Milner, Ibe, or Lallana, a formation closer to 4-3-3 rather than 4-2-3-1. An extra body in central positions, limiting the influence Rooney, Herrera, Mata, etc. might have on the match.

And there's a small chance we'll see Benteke from the start rather than as a substitute, someone to physically unsettle United's back line, and (in theory) to match Fellaini's aerial prowess on set plays. But there's no denying that Liverpool have looked much better without Benteke rather than with.

Regardless, given Liverpool's performance on Wednesday – discounting, of course, the errors which led to Arsenal's first two goals – and the continued lack of depth in the squad, I don't expect much difference between the XIs. We'll get changes when Liverpool host Exeter on Wednesday. Do what you did against Arsenal again, at least up front and in midfield. And do better in defense (*glares at Mignolet*).

Meanwhile, Manchester United aren't in the best place right now either. They're almost back on track after an eight-match winless streak – the longest in 20 years – unbeaten in the last three, but they've remained unconvincing in those three, with two narrow wins and a draw against Swansea (17th), Sheffield United (League One), and Newcastle (19th).

Tuesday's match against Newcastle was yet another example of United's imbalance. The bed sheets are too short: United can defend or United can attack. United rarely do both. It's 1-0 and 0-0, or 3-3 and 3-2 and 0-2. It's security or a scramble.

And the lineup is mostly the same whether United focuses on defense or attack. De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Young; Schneiderlin, Fellaini; Mata, Herrera, Martial; Rooney. Lingard, Memphis, and the back-from-loan Januzaj are options in attack, in place of Mata or Herrera or even Rooney, but I expect we'll see two of them off the bench at most. Carrick, Schweingsteiger, Jones, Valencia, Rojo, and Shaw are still out injured, which means that United have few alternatives in midfield or defense.

I suspect United will choose defense tomorrow after the Newcastle Incident. They'll choose safety. They'll choose careful ball control and pass, pass, pass possession. They'll try to pin Liverpool back and take all the air out of the ball, game, and stadium. Which Liverpool won't be entirely opposed to, giving the home side opportunities to press, counter-press, and counter-attack.

Liverpool's recent record against United is not good. Van Gaal's United has never lost to Liverpool, winning the previous three matches, fairly emphatically in each, with Liverpool brilliantly and frequently denied by De Gea in each. Bring back David Moyes.

And Liverpool's historical record against United ain't great either. Bob Paisley was the last Liverpool manager to win his first match against Manchester United: 3-1 at Anfield, on November 8, 1975. More than 40 years ago. Draws for Dalglish (1st stint) and Souness; losses for Fagan, Evans, Houllier, Benitez, Hodgson, Dalglish (2nd stint), and Rodgers. To be slightly fairer, only Rodgers' first match against United was at Anfield, and we're all well aware of Rodgers' record in big matches. That's still quite the ignominious streak.

But, even considering Liverpool's continuing issues, Klopp's Liverpool have been much better in big games than Rodgers' Liverpool ever was, at least aside from 2013-14. Chelsea, City, and Arsenal, and even Leicester and the League Cup semi-final at Stoke so far.

Liverpool will need to be. They don't get much bigger than this, even when it's ninth versus sixth.

14 January 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 3-3 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Stoke [League Cup] (a), West Ham (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Watford (a), West Brom (h), Sion (a), Newcastle (a), Swansea (h), Bordeaux (h), City (a), Crystal Palace (h), Rubin Kazan (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Rubin Kazan (h), Tottenham (a), Everton (a), FC Sion (h), Aston Villa (h), 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.

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

The good, the bad, the ugly. The heroes, the villains. The full range of Liverpool.

Liverpool somewhat did what Southampton did in thrashing Arsenal – Southampton's best day against Arsenal's worst – at least at one end of the pitch. Two early, well-taken goals. Well-organized, fervent pressing unsettling Arsenal, the away side unable to settle into their usual rhythm, forced to play long to Giroud when counter-attacking rather than through the middle where player-of-the-season Mesut Özil is most dangerous.

All three of Liverpool's goals started from moves beginning in Arsenal's half: Can pressing Walcott into a post-corner error for the first, Henderson pressing Flamini and Campbell into giveaways after losing possession for the second, Ibe picking up possession after a blocked free kick for the third.

As against Chelsea and Manchester City, Liverpool work-rate – with Firmino up front – pays dividends, more so than we've seen in almost every other match this season. Liverpool, once again, are better against the "big boys."

Unfortunately, Liverpool forgot the part at the other end of the pitch. Again.

The narrative continues to bear ugly fruit. Set plays have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, no matter who plays in defense or who plays in goal. Liverpool don't, can't deal with crosses. Liverpool's inability to clear and/or unfortunate ricochets end up aiding an opposition goal: Toure's failed clearance for the first, Moreno's deflection for the third. Mignolet twice – twice! – unforgivably beaten at his near post.


As against West Brom, as against Exeter (albeit with a much different side), at least Liverpool fought back. Against the league leaders, even if it was on Liverpool's own ground. And Arsenal very much made Liverpool work for it.

Arsenal were very, very good defensively after taking the lead. Nine of the 10 blocked Liverpool shots came between Arsenal and Liverpool's third goals, with Arsenal blocking nine of Liverpool's 13 shots during that spell. Only West Ham blocked more Liverpool shots in a league match this season. Only West Ham blocked more shots than Arsenal did during those 35 minutes between the third goals.

It was Liverpool against a better version of all those deep-lying defenses which have foiled Liverpool all too often this season. Arsenal still have a tendency to Arsenal, but this is a still a much better side, who I still think will win the league. During their 10-match unbeaten run coming into this fixture, Arsenal allowed more than one goal just once – that 0-4 loss at Southampton – and kept five clean sheets. Happy's learned how to putt.

And it's not as if Liverpool just fired shots at will from any and all angles. Only five of Liverpool's 13 shots during that stretch came from outside the box (four blocked), all fairly central, with eight inside the box (five blocked), and four in the Danger Zone (three blocked).

Of course, because Liverpool, I can't help but mention that only one of those 13 shots was on-target, Benteke's no-angle slow-roller in the 74th minute. 22 shots in total, just six on-target (27.3% accuracy): two from Firmino (both goals), two from Can (both outside the box), one from Allen (goal), and one from Benteke. Just one Opta-defined clear-cut chance: Moreno's wild, off-balance miss in the 48th minute.

It yet again pointed to a glaring weakness in Liverpool's squad. Where was the heroic equalizer coming from? Firmino, so outstanding in the first half, had clearly tired (as had Can), and had much less room to operate against a deep defense. Lallana? Again good without the ball, less so with it. Benteke? Sigh.

Liverpool have workers. Liverpool don't have stars. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is spongy and bruised.

This was when Liverpool missed Coutinho (not to mention Sturridge or Ings or even Origi). Sure, his shooting decisions have been increasingly terrible and eminently frustrating but at least he has precedent. But up popped Joe Allen – of all people – set up by Benteke winner a header, from Henderson's outstanding route one pass over the top. Every now and then, workers will suffice. Just not often enough.

We saw this match last season. Liverpool start as the better side despite each's respective form, Liverpool score first, Arsenal respond, Arsenal take the lead, Liverpool – somewhat unbelievably – score a late equalizer. Liverpool out-shoot, out-pass, and out-possess Arsenal at Anfield, but Liverpool don't win. At least Liverpool don't lose.

Four of the 11 Liverpool players who started last season's 2-2 draw with Arsenal started yesterday: Henderson (as right wing-back), Lallana, Sakho, and Toure. Only three of the same 11 Arsenal players started yesterday: Giroud, Flamini, and Mertesacker. Liverpool played 3-4-2-1 for only the second time, the beginning of their unlikely false-dawn unbeaten streak; Liverpool had a (much) different manager.

And yet we got a similar pattern of play and similar result yesterday, despite all the differences. Maybe there's just something about this fixture.

Or maybe there's just something about Liverpool. For now, this unbalanced, fatigued, and injury-plagued squad is what it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

12 January 2016

Liverpool v Arsenal 01.13.16

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 08.24.15
1-4 Arsenal (a) 04.04.15
2-2 (h) 12.21.14
1-2 Arsenal (a; FA Cup) 02.16.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Exeter (a); 1-0 Stoke (a); 0-2 West Ham (a)
Arsenal: 3-1 Sunderland (h); 1-0 Newcastle (h); 2-0 Bournemouth (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 6; Coutinho 5; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
Arsenal: Giroud 10; Alexis 6; Koscielny, Özil, Ramsey, Walcott 3; Campbell 2; Gabriel, Gibbs 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Toure Sakho Moreno
Can Lucas
Lallana Firmino Milner

Okay, so who's fit? Sturridge, Coutinho, Origi, Skrtel, or Lovren? Nope. Sigh.

Henderson and Ibe? Maybe! Which is, wait, what? How? Needless to say, I find it hard to believe, but Klopp referenced good news in regards to both in Monday's press conference. I still think both are more likely to start against United on Sunday.

Any actual center-backs? Also maybe! Toure's available; like Henderson and Ibe, Sakho *should* be; Lucas can play there if needed; and Liverpool just signed Steven Caulker (???) on loan. That's four! Kind of. What a time to be alive.

Unsurprisingly, I remain skeptical of Liverpool's attack.

Benteke isn't necessarily who you want leading the line in a match like this, where Liverpool will see less possession and rely on pressing from the front and quick counter-attacks, but given all the attackers injured, Liverpool don't have many other options. If you wanted to start Firmino as the center forward, who joins him in attack: Lallana and who else? Is Ibe really fit enough to start? Milner? A youngster, such as Teixeira or Ojo?

If Henderson and Ibe truly are available, it's a different story. A front six of with three in midfield from Henderson, Can, Milner, and Lucas; and with Lallana, Firmino, and Ibe up front. That's a side that will press effectively and *could* be very good on the counter-attack. I'd like to see it. I don't know if we will.

It's still "only" January, but Arsenal might actually be for real this season. Top of the league at Christmas and New Year's, two points ahead of Leicester and three ahead of Manchester City. And they've shown no signs of slowing down, with eight wins, one draw, and one loss in last 10 matches. They're still prone to doing Arsenal things in defense and attack at times – infrequent but costly mistakes at the back, overplaying and sometimes wasteful in front of goal – but far fewer than in previous seasons.

It's not very Arsenal of them.

What's more Arsenal is the injury situation. It's certainly not Liverpool, and better than "usual" for this time of year, but Alexis, Cazorla, Coquelin, Wilshere, Welbeck, and Rosicky will be absent. At least three, if not four or even five, of those players would start if available.

So chances are that it'll be Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Ramsey, Flamini; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Walcott; Giroud. Maybe Joel Campbell instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain or Gibbs instead of Monreal. Oxlade-Chamberlain could also play in central midfield. Maybe Arteta is a thing that exists. But they're settled, they're strong, and they're the good features of recent Arsenal without most of the bad.

But Arsenal's lone loss since mid-November – a 0-4 defeat at Southampton – is the blueprint. That was one of the few bad Arsenal appearances. The opposition scores early (a wonder goal like Cuco Martina's certainly helps matters), keeps it tight at the back, exploits counter-attacks and set plays. Lots of pressing, both from the front and in midfield. Meanwhile, Arsenal sputters in attack, struggling to create chances and wasting the ones they do. Starring Benteke as Shane Long (the aerial ability, sure; the work-rate less likely) and Emre Can/Henderson/Milner as Victor Wanyama. Strength and discipline in midfield will be necessary in choking off Özil's supply and attempts to supply others. Clyne against Walcott, Moreno against Campbell or Oxlade-Chamberlain. Sakho's trained against Giroud with the French national team tons of times, right?

Is it likely? Probably not. Southampton were at their absolute best, Arsenal not far off their worst. Arsenal, terrifyingly, remain favorites to win the league this season. Liverpool have beaten Arsenal just once in the last nine meetings: that memorable 5-1 trucking at Anfield in 2013-14. Otherwise? Three draws – including a 0-0 at the Emirates in August – and five losses.

But is it possible? Sure. And not just because "anything's possible." Liverpool have been better defensively under Klopp, despite the injuries, and Liverpool have been better against the better sides under Klopp. Liverpool's first-choice XI has, for the first time in a long time, actually had a bit of rest and recovery time after playing the kids in the weekend FA Cup match, while Arsenal started at least six or seven players who'll start tomorrow.

But Liverpool will have to be at their best tomorrow to get any sort of result.

09 January 2016

Liverpool 2-2 Exeter City

Nichols 9'
Sinclair 12'
Holmes 45+1'
Smith 73'

Jürgen Klopp actually did it. He went full rotation. No one ever goes full rotation.

11 different starters from Liverpool's last match. Eight kids – three of them recalled from loans just this week – plus Benteke, Bogdan, and the going-through-the-motions ghost of Jose Enrique. Three 22-year-olds, a 21-year-old, a 20-year-old, and three 19-year-olds. Five starters and two substitutes making their first appearances this season, three starters and two substitutes making their debuts for Liverpool.

It was the least experienced line-up I've seen in the last decade or so that I can actually remember, rivaled only by the 2-2 penalty defeat to Northampton, and that side at least had Agger and Lucas. Or the 0-1 loss at Burnley in this competition in 2005, and that side at least had Hyypia, Dudek, and (sigh) Traore.

Christian Benteke had played 1359 minutes this season, right around 50% of all the minutes Liverpool have played so far this season. The other 13 players to appear had played 903. In total. Combined.

Yes, Liverpool were facing a League Two side that had lost their last four matches, but, you know, a League Two side at home that had actually played together before.

Twice Liverpool went behind, twice Liverpool scored an equalizer. The seventh and eighth equalizers of Klopp's tenure, another demonstration that Liverpool still have a frightening propensity to concede first, but that there's also more fight in this squad than we'd usually seen during the previous season and some.

Both of Liverpool's goals were fortunate, with the ball ricocheting off an Exeter player to a Liverpool player in the box: the first after a tackle on Benteke which probably would have been a penalty, the second when Ojo's shot-cross was cleared from the six-yard box. Both of Exeter's goals were familiar: a cross from Liverpool's left and a corner, the latter featuring yet another error by a Liverpool goalkeeper.

Liverpool probably should have lost, but Liverpool also could have won. If not for Bogdan's error. If only Attwell had given a deserved penalty in the 82nd. Liverpool's fitness won out, the stronger side for the last half-an-hour, pushing for both the equalizer and a late winner. But if Noble and Ribiero (twice) converted earlier concrete, if not clear-cut, chances, better than most anything that Liverpool had…

For the most part, it was Liverpool's senior players who disappointed, and it was familiar problems which led to Exeter's goals, Enrique and Bogdan the primary scapegoats respectively. Enrique seemed to think he was playing as a second left-back, consistently leaving Ilori exposed and easily beaten over the top to allow Exeter space to cross for the opener, with Ilori dragged out of position by Enrique being out of position. The less said about Bogdan, and yet another unbelievable error at any level, the better. That's the first Olimpico I can remember Liverpool conceding, as well.

And then there was Liverpool's captain. Christian Benteke – whose summer transfer fee almost certainly cost more than the fees for the other 27 players on the pitch combined – did little of note, unable to assert himself against Exeter's defenders, unable to get on the same page as his 12 outfield teammates. Who, admittedly and in his defense, he'd rarely if ever played with before, and probably didn't know most of their names. He managed just one shot in 90 minutes, a point-blank header straight at Exeter's keeper from Brannagan's outstanding cross. He created just two chances: one for a blocked Kent shot, the other a clever back-heel layoff for Teixeira, a decent 81st-minute opportunity saved by Olejnik. I probably shouldn't put much stock in a match like this, on a ground like this, when used in this squad, but it's still another confusing and disappointing Benteke performance when we've already seen too many of them.

Meanwhile, Brannagan showed a decent range of passing and energy in midfield. Ryan Kent and Teixeira each had moments of threat and guile. Sheyi Ojo was a difference maker off the bench: his direct running responsible for the second equalizer, and his efforts should have been further rewarded by winning a spot kick. Ilori struggled at times, but you try playing center-back when partnered with that headless Jose Enrique performance. Sinclair and Smith – again adventurous, attacking, and dangerous down the left – scored their first goals for the club.

All of them looked like kids. But kids often look like kids, especially when up against a side of lower league veterans with vastly more experience, full of determination and pluck and rude tackles and all those underdog narratives, who needed and got a result that will keep their club afloat for another year or two thanks to the £700,000 a replay at Anfield will bring. And especially when those kids are playing on a pitch about as level and well-maintained as my rain-soaked backyard.

Ah, the magic of the FA Cup.

Credit where due: Exeter did what the good lower-league sides to the under-experienced, underwhelming Premiership sides in this competition – for the most part, they made Liverpool play their game rather than Liverpool's game – and nearly succeeded in one of the two or three giant-killings which happen every season. Wycombe did the same thing to a more-experienced, nearly full-strength Villa side just a few hours ago; Doncaster and Stoke are currently level at half-time as well.

But Liverpool fought back, Liverpool held on.

On first glance, a replay seems the worst possible result, yet another fixture in a month already packed full of them. Had Liverpool lost, it's a manageable four matches over the next 21 days, which would've felt like a vacation given the last few weeks. Had Liverpool won, it's five, with a whole six days between United and Norwich. With a replay, it's now five or six, depending on whether Liverpool win or lose the return fixture. Arsenal (h), United (h), Exeter (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), and the potential fourth round of the FA Cup, all before the end of January.

But if it's the kids again – ideally without Enrique, maybe without Bogdan or Benteke – then so be it. They deserve another match, this time at Anfield, in front of their own, on a pitch that might actually aid passing and playing football. Win or lose (win, please!), it'll provide needed experience and an opportunity to earn even more opportunities.

Maybe Liverpool will even have another player or two fit and available.

07 January 2016

Liverpool at Exeter City 01.08.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 08.24.11
6-0 Liverpool (a: League Cup) 10.28.81
5-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.07.81
2-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.30.79

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Stoke (a); 0-2 West Ham (a); 1-0 Sunderland (a)
Exeter: 1-2 Dag & Red (h); 0-2 Wimbledon (h); 0-3 Oxford (a)

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: n/a
Exeter: 2-0 Port Vale (h); 3-0 Didcot Town (A)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Benteke 7; Coutinho 5; Orig, Sturridgei 4; Ibe, Ings, Milner 3; Lallana 2; Can, Clyne, Firmino, Henderson, Skrtel 1
Exeter: Nichols 8; Wheeler 7; Nicholls 6; Harley 5; Grant 3; Holmes, Morrison 2; Brown, Davies, Hoskins, McCready, Oyeleke, Reid, Ribeiro, Tillson, Watkins 1

Referee: Stuart Attwell

Guess at a line-up:
Randall Can Lucas Smith
Milner Allen
Ibe Lallana Teixeira

A foreign manager in a new league. A debilitated Liverpool squad, rife with injuries and overworked through participation in four competitions. Underwhelming in the league, but in the semifinals of the League Cup, taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg, and in the knockout rounds in European competition.

Dudek; Raven, Hyypia, Whitbread, Traore; Biscan, Welsh; Nuñez, Potter, Warnock; Sinama Pongolle.

I can't help but worry about the parallels between tomorrow's match and the 2004-05 loss at Burnley, a 0-1 defeat graced by Djimi Traore's glorious Zidane Drag-back. Which became proof that Rafa Benitez didn't get English football and didn't care about the country's premiere cup competition. Or something.

Klopp's Liverpool are in all-too-similar situation. He's supposedly "been found out" by English football, and Liverpool's current squad is even more unbalanced, fatigued, and injury-ridden than the 2004-05 version. In theory, this year's is stronger. In practice, *glares at 11-player-long injury list*.

Klopp's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't tomorrow. A full-strength line-up's completely out of the question, but the last thing that Liverpool need is even more injuries and even more fatigued players going into matches against Arsenal and United, as well as the second semi-final leg against Stoke. Too strong, and Liverpool could and probably would pay for it in subsequent matches. Too weak, and the foreigner's disrespecting English football again and Liverpool are in crisis and etc etc.

Liverpool literally have no fit center-backs. Toure's out for a week, Lovren for two or three, Skrtel for another month, and no one (outside of the club, that is) is really sure about Sakho. Lucas, having played there against Stoke, seemed certain to start as one of the two CBs, but will he partner Can – two central midfielders as center-backs, most likely in front of a rarely-tested Bogdan and alongside one or two youth full-backs? Will Ilori or Wisdom be recalled from their loans in time? One of the u-21 center-backs: Cleary or Brewitt? I hear that Jose Enrique's played some center-back for the u-21s…

Liverpool's full-backs – especially Clyne – desperately need a match off, but can Liverpool rest both while changing the rest of the defense as well? Sure, why not.

Otherwise, at least there will be some familiar faces in the front six. I've gone for five who often start along with Teixeira – last seen against Bournemouth in the League Cup – but Klopp could make even more changes. Brannagan and Chirivella are possibilities in midfield; Ojo and Kent have been recalled from loans at Wolves and Coventry.

That Benteke – Liverpool's only fit out-and-out striker – will start seems the only certainty at the business end of the pitch, especially since Firmino could do with a game off after five successive starts. A rough and tumble cup tie on what'll almost certainly be a gopher hole pitch? Go bang into some people and bang in some goals, Christian.

Meanwhile, Exeter are currently 16th in League Two. They've lost their last four matches. They got whomped 6-3 by Sunderland in a League Cup meeting back in August. Sunderland! Six goals! Paul Tisdale has been Exeter's manager for the last decade; only Arsene Wegner's been at the same English club for longer. They don't score often – only five of the 24 League Two sides have scored fewer – but until this four-match losing stretch, they hadn't conceded all that often either, exactly middle of the league for goals allowed.

I am familiar with one (1) of their players: Clinton Morrison, who had Premier League spells with Birmingham and Palace around a decade ago, scoring four goals against Liverpool from 2001-2003. He's 36 now. At most, he'll feature off the bench.

Just one of the Exeter players who started in the 2011 League Cup tie with Liverpool is still at the club – midfielder David Noble – although current top-scorer Tom Nichols came off the bench that night.

That's all I got. In all Exeter regards, your guess is as good as mine.

It's dismissive, it's rude, and it might even be overly optimistic, but if Liverpool do what Liverpool should do and Liverpool do what Liverpool are capable of doing, Liverpool will win, regardless of the XI. Liverpool are a Premier League side, Exeter are a League Two side, magic of the FA Cup be damned.

But the lesson of Burnley – who, admittedly was a Championship club at the time – can't be forgotten either. Maybe the parallels are closer with the 2-2 loss to Northampton Town in the 2010-11 League Cup, another League Two side, but you compare a Hodgson side to a Klopp side, because I'm not doing so.

What really matters is that Liverpool match Exeter's work-rate, willingness, and effort. Exeter might have more important matches this season if they somehow plummet from lower mid-table into the relegation battle, but Exeter won't have any more prominent matches – on national and international television for the first and probably last time this season.

Whatever Liverpool do, Liverpool cannot take their opponents lightly, Liverpool cannot simply show up. But at least that rarely seems to be an issue with Jürgen Klopp's teams.