29 February 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City aet [1-3 pens]

Previous Match Infographics: Augsburg (h), Augsburg (a), Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), 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)

All data from WhoScored.

Once again, give Liverpool the ball and wait them out. Manchester City definitely learned from the last meeting between these sides.

Liverpool had a shade under 58% possession against City yesterday (although it was 61.1% after 90 minutes), but the larger point still stands. If you sit deep, stay defensively organized, let Liverpool control possession, and congest space in your defensive half, chances are you'll succeed. If you attack Liverpool, giving them space to counter, giving them opportunities to press midfielders and defenders, Liverpool are more likely to score and much more likely to win.

Sitting deep against Liverpool denies space to the sometimes-tricky diminutive attacking midfielders, and doesn't allow strikers like Sturridge to run beyond the defenders. Liverpool's midfield – Can, Henderson, sometimes Lucas and Milner – aren't especially good at creating chances through the middle. Neither Lallana nor Coutinho make runs for throughballs, like that which Sturridge created for Milner in the 56th minute yesterday but Milner put wide.

And when the opposition can counter quickly, it exposes Liverpool's back-line and error-prone goalkeeper. City's goal was a good example: Sterling winning the aerial duel from Mignolet's goal kick, a quick cross-field pass to Agüero one-on-one with Lucas, Fernandinho on the overlap into space where Moreno wasn't, capped off by Mignolet failing to stop a very stoppable shot. But Agüero's chances in the 23rd and 48th minutes, Sterling's chances in the 60th and 80th minutes, and the non-penalty in the 63rd are even better examples.

Comparing where each sides' defensive actions took place in November and yesterday is telling. Liverpool's were much, much deeper than City's at the Etihad and compared to yesterday, and not just because Liverpool's fast start in the last meeting allowed them to sit deep. They denied space in midfield and defense from the opening whistle, and then more so once they took a one-goal lead, after which City quickly grew into the game before Liverpool's second and third.

So what's the solution? Excellent question; I wish I knew. Against different deep defenses, this side's tried pressing more fervently, tried using more crosses, tried using Benteke, tried overloading the middle with midfielders (both attacking and central), tried both higher and deeper defensive lines. Liverpool's switch to two strikers and a diamond midfield late on yesterday seems a definite possibility, but that improvement was also aided by an increasingly frantic end-of-game situation, where space arose because of tiring City legs as well as Liverpool's different formation and personnel. Firmino and Sturridge have pretty much played as two strikers in the three previous matches anyway, succeeding against an absolutely terrible Aston Villa but nowhere near as impressive in both legs against Augsburg.

I suspect it's mostly a matter of more training, more acclimatization to Klopp's tactics, more match time for returning players, and one or two new attackers in the summer. Now that this chance for success is gone, and Liverpool seem certain to finish somewhere between 6th and 8th in the league, it seems time for more experimentation: maybe more of the diamond midfield, more Flanagan and or Brad Smith at full-back, more Ibe, etc., at least in the league, with all of Liverpool's eggs now in the European basket.

But, as said yesterday, even despite these recurring issues in both attack and defense, Liverpool were a penalty lottery away from winning a trophy against the most expensively assembled side in England. Liverpool were a goalkeeper error away from somehow keeping a clean sheet with Lucas and Kolo Toure as center-backs – although mention must also be made of four outstanding goalkeeper saves to go along with said error, perfectly encapsulating Mignolet's peaks and valleys. Liverpool stayed close to a side that's more cohesive, more experienced, and more settled, featuring the most dangerous striker in the league and which both out-shot Liverpool and nearly doubled Liverpool's xG. This Liverpool side is still adjusting to Klopp's tactics (and the return of both Sturridge and Coutinho, who clearly make the side better but also remain rusty) and isn't yet close to being built in Klopp's image.

A trophy would have put some shine on what's been a fairly disappointing and dismal season, as it did in 2011-12. Nonetheless, Liverpool still seem in a much better possession than they were after that season and than they were a year ago.

28 February 2016

Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City aet

Manchester City win 3-1 on penalties

Fernandinho 49'
Coutinho 83'

It's a special talent of Liverpool's to frustrate and disappoint you, then give you hope, and then crush your soul into infinitesimal pieces.

That said, it's also a fair result. Manchester City were the better side, Manchester City had the better chances, Manchester City's defensive organization was superb. Manchester City should have wrapped it up long before Coutinho's late equalizer, except Sterling missed two excellent chances and somehow Moreno wasn't called for a penalty.

Of course, that doesn't make it any easier to stomach.

The late equalizer – and the difference that Lallana and Origi made off the bench – was impressive, but Liverpool were lucky to get it to extra time and penalties. And after beating Carlisle and Stoke on spot-kicks in this competition, Liverpool's luck ran out. Both Mignolet and Caballero guessed right on all but Emre Can's Panenka penalty, but Caballero got his hand to Liverpool's less-than-perfectly hit attempts from Lucas, Coutinho, and Lallana. Mignolet couldn't; Navas, Agüero, and Toure's efforts were just too good.

This is how far Liverpool still have to go. They're close, closer than their record or our usual criticism suggests, but nowhere near close enough.

For 48 minutes, cup final is cup final is cup final: closely fought with chances few and far between. Liverpool had the majority of possession, but only a couple of blocked shots and a mis-hit volley to show for it. I've never seen City get into a deep defensive position so quickly, completely abandoning any attempt at a high line. They clearly remembered November at the Etihad.

Meanwhile, City had the best chance, Agüero behind Liverpool's center-backs on a long ball from defense, amazingly saved onto the post by Mignolet, and a handful of set plays that Liverpool competently dealt with. That Sergio Agüero's shot was the only shot on-target in the first half. Cup finals.

But then, just after halftime, Fernandinho's goal happened, exploiting the space behind Moreno, his wide-box shot somehow under and through Liverpool's goalkeeper. From hero to villain, The Simon Mignolet Story.

From there, Liverpool had to come out. And, as sadly usual, struggled to do so. Liverpool's equalizer was Liverpool's first shot on-target. Before Lallana replaced Moreno and Origi replaced Firmino, in the 72nd and 80th minutes respectively, Liverpool had exactly one half-chance: a Sturridge throughball for Milner, mishit high and wide.

I've no idea how City failed to add a second, routinely exposing Liverpool on the counter-attack with Liverpool needing to chase the game. Sterling screwed two Danger Zone chances wide. Moreno stuck out a leg to trip Agüero in the box but somehow wasn't whistled by Michael Oliver. A smothered shot from distance, a free kick narrowly over.

But Liverpool somehow struck back. The substitutes replaced disappointing players and made an immediate impact. The switch to a 4-Diamond-2 gave Liverpool more control in midfield, with Milner adding better support from left-back. After a spell of possession, Coutinho, Origi, Henderson, and Clyne somehow forced the ball across the top of City's box, aided by a couple of fortunate bounces, eventually out to Sturridge wide on the right, his center finding Lallana at the far post. The substitute's shot hit the post, but ricocheted straight to Coutinho on the penalty spot, squeezing his between two defenders and past Caballero.

A little bit – well, more than a little bit – of luck and multiple players getting into dangerous positions. Getting into the penalty box. And something finally happens.

And then the world went mad. Two miraculous Mignolet saves in the final five minutes, denying both Fernandinho and Toure from close range. Then another, on Agüero, who somehow got in behind Lucas and Toure, in extra time. Origi could have won it with a point-blank header in the 110th minute, wonderfully denied by Caballero. Milner incredibly attempted a back-pass header straight to Agüero, who volleyed over. A UFC match nearly broke out between Lallana and Yaya Toure, after Lallana's bad foul, then Toure's horrific foul, then Toure attempting to piledrive an opponent half his size. Four City set plays in the final two minutes, the last with Fernandinho's almost-free header in the 121st minute directed wide rather than on-target.

Sports are baffling and hysterical and perpetually amazing.

And then penalties happened. Liverpool's 14 of 17 record on spot-kicks meant nothing, and Manchester City win their fourth trophy since Liverpool last won any.

Sports are also the worst.

So here we are. Another close but not close enough performance, another disappointment, in what was almost certainly Liverpool's best chance to avoid disappointment this season. Another match where Liverpool try hard but sputter and break down upon reaching the final third, another match where Liverpool concede because of a goalkeeper error.

But it's still impressive that Liverpool got here after all that's happened this season. The unbalanced squad, the injuries, the managerial change. That Liverpool got to penalties after the first 75 minutes of that match. That Liverpool got that close with Kolo Toure and Lucas as center-backs for 100 minutes of a cup final thanks to Sakho's early concussion – the latter arguably man of the match – with Sturridge clearly less than fit after his consecutive starts, with Firmino and Moreno massively disappointing. That Liverpool were the stronger and better side in extra time shows the strides Liverpool's fitness, at the very least, has made under the new manager.

It's both worse than it seems and better than it seems. And despite the massive disappointment, it still seems as if getting better rather than worse.

27 February 2016

Liverpool v Manchester City 02.28.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (a) 11.21.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.01.15
1-3 City (a) 08.25.14
3-2 Liverpool (h) 04.13.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Augsburg (h); 0-0 Augsburg (a); 6-0 Villa (a)
City: 3-1 Dynamo Kiev (a); 1-5 Chelsea (a); 1-2 Tottenham (h)

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: 0-1 Stoke aet [6-5 pens], 1-0 Stoke (a); 6-1 Southampton (a); 1-0 Bournemouth (h); 1-1 Carlisle aet [3-2 pens] (h)
City: 3-1 Everton (h), 1-2 Everton (a); 4-1 Hull (h); 5-1 Palace (h); 4-1 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (League Cup):
Liverpool: Origi 3; Ibe, Sturridge 2; Clyne, Ings 1
City: de Bruyne 5; Agüero, Bony, Iheanacho 2; Fernandinho, Garcia, Navas, Sterling, Toure 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

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

We're pretty sure what Liverpool's XI is going to be: the same as the last few matches, with Kolo Toure (or Lovren or Skrtel, if fit) coming into defense in place of Lucas.

We're pretty sure what Liverpool need to do to succeed: actually convert its chances, as they did when facing City in November. Over the last few weeks, Liverpool have defended, pressed, possessed, and created chances. But except for the rout at all-but-already-relegated Aston Villa, Liverpool simply haven't scored.

Of course, scoring goals is easier said than done. Or Liverpool would have solved this problem ages ago.

Maybe the fit-again Lallana replaces Milner, maybe Lucas comes into midfield in the hopes of adding more defensive protection against City's firepower. But I doubt it. We've seen what Liverpool wants to do now that almost everyone's fit again. We've almost, but not quite, seen what Liverpool's capable of. Because we haven't seen Liverpool take advantage of the recent improvements in attack.

When Liverpool actually score goals, Liverpool are actually pretty good. But when they don't, look out – often either a frustrating Sisyphean struggle or a Yakety Sax hot mess.

Amazingly, Liverpool are up against a side that's almost as inconsistent as themselves.

Manchester City lost three straight before their comprehensive 3-1 win at Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday. It was the first time City have lost three consecutive matches since October-November 2010. There's a bit of fluke involved – ;a contentious penalty decision v Tottenham, a very different and very inexperienced XI in the FA Cup loss at Chelsea – but it also demonstrates Manchester City's capability to disappoint.

Sure, they've had injury issues this season. They've struggled to gel at times. In places, it's an aging and unbalanced squad. But you look at their roster, and you wonder how they're fourth, six points off the league leaders. You wonder how they're not running away with the league. You wonder how that attack hasn't already scored a billion goals.

I know their defense is wacky when Kompany's not involved, and he's missed a lot of time; it's probably not coincidence that Liverpool's 4-1 win at City came with Kompany absent. Agüero and de Bruyne, two crucial players in attack, have missed a lot of time as well. It's still confusing. They're still confusing. But Kompany's back for this, and Agüero's available for this, and City are coming off an impressive 3-1 away win in the Champions League to put them on course to make the quarterfinals for the first time ever. Because of course.

Throughout the season, Pellegrini's experimented with a 4-3-3 that looks more like a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2, with a central midfielder ostensibly on the flanks. Usually, it's been Fabian Delph. Usually, it's less than impressive. But at Kiev, Fernandinho filled that role, and filled it fairly well, adding protection when Toure or Fernando got forward but also linking up with other attackers.

We may see similar tomorrow. That XI, the same as at Kiev, would be Hart; Sagna, Kompany, Otamendi, Clichy; Toure, Fernando; Silva, Sterling, Fernandinho; Agüero. Or we may see a more orthodox 4-3-3 in an attempt to prevent Liverpool from overrunning central spaces. Or Navas returning to the side in place of Fernando or Fernandinho or even Sterling. City could make changes at both full-back positions, with Zabaleta and Kolarov coming into the side. Caballero's started every domestic cup match in the last two seasons, but I find it hard to believe Joe Hart won't start tomorrow.

City, despite their injury issues – Navas, Bony, and Mangala were back in training after the trip to Kiev, but Delph, de Bruyne, and Nasri remain absent – have options. It's what they do, or don't do, with those options. Just like Liverpool.

So, it's nearly impossible to predict what'll happen tomorrow, not that I've got any great record at predictions anyway. Maybe Liverpool actually score early and often, and we get that wonderful November trip to the Etihad again. Maybe Liverpool control proceedings but sputter in the final third, and we get a replica of 0-1 v Manchester United. Maybe City hit peak City and run riot, something they've done less than usual this season but still somehow always seem capable of doing. Maybe everybody disappoints and it's another damp squib at Wembley. Anything can happen, and to the victor goes the glory.

Just like a cup final should be.

26 February 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Augsburg

Previous Match Infographics: Augsburg (a), Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), 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)

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

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

Liverpool needs to finish its chances, Part XXXVIII.

We've seen this match multiple times, but it seemed most like Liverpool's first European match at Anfield. Except, thankfully, in the result.

Liverpool created six clear-cut chances against Sion, the most in any match this season, but only scored the first. Liverpool created good chances, rather than relying on speculative or forced shots from distance. Liverpool took the vast majority of its shots from inside the box, Liverpool put an above-average amount on target. Liverpool should have scored a lot more than they did. Liverpool should have won.

And that's almost exactly what happened yesterday. Five clear-cut chances; only that Sion match (6) and the 4-1 win at Manchester City (5, scoring two) saw as many. 17 of 24 shots from inside the box, 12 from the Danger Zone. A barely-mediocre 25% shooting accuracy, but more because Augsburg blocked ten Liverpool shots rather than Liverpool's all-too-usual errancy.

The difference? Sion scored from one of their few counter-attacks, Liverpool caught out by a long cross-field pass over a failed offside trap. Had Liverpool done similar yesterday, Liverpool would be out of the competition. And Liverpool almost did similar: Lucas errors released Caiuby in the 1st and 35th minutes, Stafylidis forced an excellent save from Mignolet in the 25th and barely missed with a free kick in the 89th, Mignolet charged off his line to deny an almost-through-on-goal Werner in the 70th, and Liverpool barely scrambled a loose ball clear from its six-yard box in the 87th.

It was far too close for comfort, and yet again, that's because Liverpool couldn't convert just one more of its multiple chances. But by hook, by crook, or by luck – by all of those things – Liverpool didn't concede.

It's not the first time similar has happened in the Europa League. Liverpool have now played eight European matches this season. Liverpool scored 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 0, 0, and 1 in those eight games. Seven goals in eight games is not good. Seven goals in eight games almost perfectly summarizes Liverpool's season; you've just got to throw the word "hamstring" in there somewhere. However, in their eight games, Augsburg scored 1, 1, 1, 4, 2, 3, 0, and 0. Liverpool were the only side to hold Augsburg scoreless in this competition, and they did it twice.

It's still surprising to me, but Liverpool actually have a fairly competent defense. Usually. And yesterday, that was enough. As it was in 1-0 Bournemouth, 1-0 Kazan, 1-0 Swansea, 1-0 Leicester, 1-0 Sunderland, 1-0 Stoke, etc. But it makes for a very small margin of error: all those 1-1 draws earlier in the season, 0-2 Newcastle, 0-1 United, 0-1 Stoke, 0-2 Leicester, etc, etc.

We've seen what happens if this side finishes its chances: 4-1 City, 6-1 Southampton, 5-4 Norwich, 6-0 Villa. Better finishing or a bit more luck, and this could have easily fallen into that category. It helps when Coutinho and Firmino monopolize possession as they did, create as they did. Two Coutinho clear-cut chances for Sturridge, one Sturridge clear-cut chance for Coutinho. Seven chances created by Coutinho in the match, the most by a Liverpool player in league or European competition this season. Augsburg created eight chances in the entire match.

If this side plays like this, but finishes just a bit better, it can be a very, very good Liverpool side, especially when everyone's fit. Having Sturridge and Coutinho fit unsurprisingly makes Liverpool actually decent. Other than the finishing, it's coming together: possession, creation, shot dominance, clean sheets. This is the first time since the first three matches of the season that Liverpool have kept three consecutive clean sheets.

Unfortunately, scoring goals is pretty much the most important part of the game. That can come, that should come, but Liverpool's frequent failings in regard, both with and without its best attackers, remains more than worrisome.

Let's just hope that Liverpool are saving their infrequently-seen ruthless finishing for Sunday's match, as well as the next round of this competition.

24 February 2016

Liverpool v FC Augsburg 02.25.16

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

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Augsburg (a); 6-0 Villa (a); 1-2 West Ham aet (a)
Augsburg: 1-0 Hannover (a); 0-0 Liverpool (h); 1-3 Bayern (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 0-0 Augsburg (a); 0-0 Sion (a); 2-1 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Kazan (a); 1-1 Kazan (h); 1-1 Sion (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Augsburg: 0-0 Liverpool (h); 3-1 Partizan (a); 2-3 Athletic Bilbao (h); 4-1 AZ (h); 0-1 AZ (a); 1-3 Partizan (h); 1-3 Athletic (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana 2, Benteke, Can, Ibe, Milner 1
Augsburg: Bobadilla 6; Trochowski 2; Altintop, Hong, Ji, Verhaegh 1

Referee: Clément Turpin (FRA)

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

It'll be the same team as a week ago. Lovren, Skrtel, Lallana, and Allen remain absent, along with the other long-term casualties. With Liverpool needing to attack (and attack consistently), and needing to score, I doubt Lucas comes into the side. There will be only three days in between this and the League Cup Final at Wembley, but Liverpool won't hold players back with an eye on that contest. A trophy is a trophy is a trophy, but progression in the Europa League (and a Champions League place for the eventual winner) is nearly as important, and Liverpool have had a week between matches to prepare players for playing in both fixtures.

So as long as certain players (*glances warily at Sturridge, Henderson*) haven't suffered any setbacks in training, it'll be the XI we saw in Germany. Which remains, despite the failings in Germany, arguably the strongest XI that Liverpool can put out. As long as that XI performs to their capabilities. Which, as usual, remains a crapshoot.

Last week, Augsburg were without Daniel Bayer, Jeong-Ho Hong, Jan Moravek, Piotr Trochowski, and Jan-Ingwer Callen-Bracker due to injury, as well as Jeffrey Gouweleeuw because he's cup-tied. Raul Bobadilla strained his hamstring 15 minutes into the match. And midfielder Markus Feulner broke his cheekbone over the weekend. Eight players who'd at least have a chance to start will be absent, and it's not as if Augsburg have a large squad to begin with. Liverpool can empathize.

Icelandic striker Alfred Finnbogason started up front in place of Bobadilla at Hannover, with Caiuby on the left, Koo in the hole, and Esswein on the right. We could see that again, or ex-Sunderland striker Ji Dong-Won up front, or both Werner and Altintop returning to the side in the positions they played against Liverpool. And I have absolutely no idea who'll start in midfield in place of Feulner, especially since the usual replacements – Baier, Trochowski, even center-backs Hong or Gouweleeuw – are also out. Maybe Koo or Esswein drops deeper, maybe Augsburg change formation, maybe Augsburg use a defender or a youth player I've never heard of. No clue.

For formality's sake, let's guess the XI to be Hitz; Verhaegh, Janker, Klaven, Stafylidis; Koo, Kohr; Esswein, Altintop, Caiuby; Ji. But I'm fully prepared to be wrong in a few places. No matter who starts, Augsburg will mostly do what Augsburg did a week ago: soak up Liverpool pressure, deny chances, press when given the opportunity, look to force turnovers, and counter-attack at pace. With Liverpool at Anfield, there will probably be an even larger possession discrepancy, but that could just as easily leave Liverpool more exposed when Augsburg do get the chance to counter. A single away goal could easily decide tomorrow's match.

Meanwhile, Liverpool need to score, and could well need to score multiple times. Which basically makes this the same story we've told time and time again. If Liverpool do good things in attack – even just a couple of things – and don't do stupid things in defense, Liverpool will win. Liverpool need to take their chances, Liverpool need to not make errors at the back.

But Liverpool haven't done (or not done) those things with any sort of consistency. This would be a good week to start.

19 February 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Augsburg

Previous Match Infographics: Aston Villa (a), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), 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)

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

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

At least Liverpool are consistent?

For the third time this season, Liverpool have followed up a five-or-more-goals performance by failing to score. 6-0 at Southampton followed by 0-2 at Newcastle and 0-0 at Sion; 5-4 at Norwich followed by 0-1 v Stoke, 0-0 v West Ham, and 0-2 at Leicester; and, now, 6-0 at Aston Villa followed by 0-0 at Augsburg.

Stop using up all your goals in one match, Liverpool.

That's a stretch going back four managers: Hodgson, Dalglish, Rodgers, and Klopp. Matches in Germany, Switzerland, Russia, France, Turkey, Italy, Scotland, Belarus, Portugal, Czech Republic, Romania, and the Netherlands. Liverpool failed to score in nine of those 16 games, with Liverpool scoring more than once in just one: an insane 5-3 win at BSC Young Boys in 2012-13.

Liverpool are Liverpool and European football is European football.

Liverpool are consistent. And consistently inconsistent.

As much as it was a very Liverpool-after-scoring-a-bunch-can't-score match, it was even more a very European away match.

Liverpool average 16.1 shots per match in the league, Augsburg allow 16.6 shots per match in the league. Liverpool took 16 yesterday: eight in the box, eight outside the box, six on-target. Liverpool average 1.5 goals per game in the league, Augsburg allow 1.5 goals per game in the league. Liverpool, as I suspect you remember, failed to score.

Liverpool's performance, at least in attack, was slightly worse than usual, but not much. The highs can be high, the lows can be low, and there's also some meh. Yesterday was quite meh. Liverpool had a handful of half-chances and one very good, clear-cut chance for Liverpool's best goalscorer, and that goalscorer missed. And that's football and that's life.

But it's not as if Liverpool completely held Augsburg at arms' length, did to them what they did to Villa, and did to Sunderland for the first 80 minutes. Liverpool were the better side and Liverpool had the best chance, the only clear-cut chance. Yet Augsburg took 12 shots, a total only eight sides have surpassed in Klopp's 32 Liverpool matches. At least three of those Augsburg chances could have easily resulted in a goal: Esswein in behind Toure on the break in the 45th minute, but shooting too close to Mignolet from close range; a 75th-minute back post cross that an open Stafylidis mis-hit; and an 86th-minute shot by Ji from Caiuby's knockdown off the outside of the woodwork.

That said, Liverpool are still the first side to hold Augsburg scoreless in a Europa League match this season. And despite Liverpool's repeated underwhelming performances in this competition, Augsburg are only the second side to hold Liverpool scoreless, following the 0-0 draw at Sion where neither side even tried to score.

0-0 certainly isn't the worst situation to be in going into the second leg at Anfield. Just win, by any margin, on your own ground, and you advance to the Round of 16 for the first time since 2010-11.

And Liverpool should win on its own ground, even though Liverpool is frequently better away from home and Augsburg is frequently better away from home. Augsburg also have a weekend game, while Liverpool don't, although we got 0-3 at Watford the last time Klopp's Liverpool had a week between games.

But just one mistake – a bad pass, a giveaway in the defensive half, a set play, a goalkeeper error – and Liverpool could be in trouble. One Liverpool mistake, even if only one, is certainly within the realm of possibility, if not even probable.

Away goals are crucial in this competition. An away goal would have given Liverpool breathing space, as well as the option of resting Henderson or Sturridge or whomever before the League Cup Final three days after the next leg. An away goal for Augsburg next week will require Liverpool to score two, something they've done just once in this competition.

Liverpool's next two matches have become Liverpool's two most important matches of the season. And they could well be the last two important matches Liverpool play this season.

17 February 2016

Liverpool at FC Augsburg 02.18.16

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 6-0 Villa (a); 1-2 West Ham aet (a)2-2 Sunderland (h)
Augsburg: 1-3 Bayern (h); 1-2 Ingolstadt (a); 0-0 Eintracht Frankfurt (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 0-0 Sion (a); 2-1 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Kazan (a); 1-1 Kazan (h); 1-1 Sion (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Augsburg: 3-1 Partizan (a); 2-3 Athletic Bilbao (h); 4-1 AZ (h); 0-1 AZ (a); 1-3 Partizan (h); 1-3 Athletic (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana 2, Benteke, Can, Ibe, Milner 1
Augsburg: Bobadilla 6; Trochowski 2; Altintop, Hong, Ji, Verhaegh 1

Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP)

Borbalán's actually done a Liverpool match before: the 0-1 loss at Anahi Makhachkala in this competition in 2012.

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

Unless certain players aren't fit enough (looking at you, Daniel, Jordan, and Kolo), I can't see Liverpool's XI being much different than Sunday's.

There are perpetually concerns about players' fitness, especially the aforementioned certain players. But Liverpool have had four days since the win over Villa, and will have a full week before the home leg of this fixture. There haven't been any rumors of problems since Sunday, at least other than Kevin Stewart's ankle injury, and he's not in the Europa League squad anyway. Lucas will return to the squad, while Lallana, Lovren, Skrtel, and Allen are still absent.

Maybe Sturridge is protected and either Origi or Benteke start up front, although I'd argue that if Sturridge is going to play at all, he should do so from the start, where he's much more effective than as a substitute. Maybe Henderson's ongoing heel problem means that he needs a match off, and Lucas comes into midfield. Maybe Caulker, or even Lucas, replaces Toure. Maybe Ibe comes in for Milner, or maybe Firmino starts as the central striker in a 4-3-3.

All of those changes are possibilities, although I suspect they're less likely than the alternatives. But otherwise, same as before. It's clearly Liverpool's strongest XI at the moment, Liverpool's fixture list is finally easing, and this competition has become even more important than it seemed back in December thanks to continued failings in the league. There won't be any more XIs like those at Sion or at Bordeaux.

Liverpool need this competition.

Meanwhile, Augsburg are currently 14th in the 18-team Bundesliga, winless in their last four since returning from Germany's month-long winter break. They're one point outside the relegation playoffs and eight points from the top half of the table.

14th seems just about right after a quick look at their statistics. Only four sides have scored fewer league goals, only five sides have conceded more league goals. Augsburg allow the most shots per-game in the Bundesliga, although a large portion come from outside the box – and, incidentally, Liverpool really like shooting from outside the box. And at the other end of the pitch, only two Bundesliga sides take a higher percentage of their shots from outside the box: Ingolstadt (12th) and Hannover (18th).

Augsburg want to do what a lot of sides have done to Liverpool. And have succeeded by doing to Liverpool. Soak up Liverpool's pressure, close down quickly and congest space in midfield and in their defensive half, force sides to take their shots from less dangerous positions, and then counter-attack. Only Stuttgart have taken more shots from counter-attacking situations in the Bundesliga. At least Augsburg don't often score from set plays – only four league goals – but Liverpool can concede from set plays against anyone. Augsburg do, however, win penalties; only Bayern has scored more from the spot.

I probably shouldn't embarrass us both by attempting to predict Augsburg's XI, so let's just assume it'll be similar to the side which lost 1-3 to Bayern Munich on Sunday. A compact 4-2-3-1: Hitz; Verhaegh, Hong, Klavan, Max; Kohr, Koo; Esswein, Trochowski, Caiuby; Bobadilla. January signing Goiweleeuw, who started in midfield on Sunday, is cup-tied; center-back Jeong-Ho Hong is questionable after picking up a muscle injury in that match.

Special mention need be made of Raul Bobadilla, who is the joint-top scorer in the Europa League this season. He's got as many goals as Liverpool have in total. While Augsburg struggle to score in the league, they scored in every Europa League match, hitting four once and three once, averaging two goals per game. Liverpool scored two goals in just one of their six Europa League games. Bobadilla also previously faced Liverpool – albeit a much different Liverpool – in this competition in 2012-13, scoring at Anfield and setting up a goal in Switzerland. He's exactly the type of player who can punish a single defensive lapse, no matter the run of play. Liverpool remain far too fond of making defensive lapses.

Liverpool lost at this stage of the competition in each of their last two appearances: Zenit in 2012-13 and Besiktas in 2014-15. Augsburg is seemingly weaker than both of those opponents, with the added bonus that Liverpool's manager knows the side well, but that hasn't stopped Liverpool before.

That the first leg is away from home also appears to be a bonus. Liverpool have often been better away from home this season – Watford, Newcastle, etc. notwithstanding – and any result away in European competition is a good thing, especially considering the importance of away goals. While a 0-0 draw still hands Liverpool an advantage going into the second leg, an away goal would give Liverpool a massive edge at Anfield.

So go get them goals.

15 February 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 6-0 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke [League Cup] (h), 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)
As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

Matches like that are hard to analyze, because it's hard to know just how much of that was lucky, how much was a fluke. It was fairly close in the first half, but quickly got out of hand in the second. We saw the best of Liverpool – frequently mediocre, but surprisingly competent on their day and when key players are fit – and the absolute worst of Aston Villa, who aren't especially impressive on their few-and-far-between good days.

My suspicion, unfortunately, is quite a bit of that won't happen often.

Liverpool's shooting accuracy – 81.8%, nine on-target from 11 in total – is, by far, the club's highest in a league match since I began tracking in 2012-13. The previous high was 75% in the 0-1 loss at Hull last season, where Liverpool put nine tame shots on-target and failed to score with any of them. The previous high where Liverpool actually scored was 69.2% in the 5-3 win at Stoke in 2013-14. Since 2012-13, Liverpool have shot better than 50% in just 12 league matches:

12 times in 140 matches.

Liverpool's goal conversion percentage – 60%, six goals from ten non-blocked shots – is, by far, the club's highest in a league match since 2012-13. The previous high was 55.6% at Norwich last month, which is the only other match over 50% during these three-plus seasons. Incidentally, Liverpool's third-best goal conversion percentage this season is 27.27% at City, which is a bit of a drop from the other two. And Liverpool's season-long average is a horrific 13.21% – better than 2014-15's 12.21% but vastly worse than 2013-14's 19.35%.

The last time Liverpool scored three goals from outside the box in a league match was 5-2 at Norwich in September 2012, Luis Suarez with all three. Prior to yesterday's match, Liverpool had scored just five goals from outside the box in the league in total: Coutinho at Stoke, Milner v Villa, Coutinho at Chelsea, Origi v West Brom, and Firmino v Arsenal. Liverpool scored eight last season, 17 in 2013-14, and 12 in 2012-13. Unsurprisingly, Luis Suarez accounted for a good amount of them in both 2012-13 and 2013-14 (five and seven, respectively).

The last time Liverpool had six different goalscorers in a league match was September 1989, when eight different players scored in the 9-0 win over Crystal Palace. The last time it happened in any competition was November 2000, with six different goalscorers in an 8-0 league cup win at Stoke.

And Liverpool did all of this in attack with no player taking more than two shots. Nine different players took at least one. Seven hit the target, six scored. There will be days where one player's "on" (I'm looking at you, Daniel). There will be fewer where pretty much everyone's on.

At the other end of the pitch, Liverpool have allowed their opponents one or no shots on-target in just four other league matches this season: one v Manchester United (United scored), one at Newcastle (Newcastle scored), one at Stoke, and zero v Swansea.

Six opposition shots in total was joint-second lowest in a league match this season. The low was against West Brom, where West Brom took just four shots and scored twice. The three other matches where Liverpool allowed six were at Norwich (Liverpool conceded four), at Watford (Liverpool conceded three), and at Newcastle (Liverpool conceded two).

Even when Liverpool have allowed few shots, and/or the opposition attack has offered next to nothing, Liverpool have often found a way to screw it up.

There was a lot that was unusual about Liverpool yesterday, mostly in attack, but also in defense. And I'm afraid that Aston Villa's being really really really really bad at football had a lot to do with it.

Nonetheless, it still seems clear that Sturridge, Coutinho, and Origi returning to the side will make Liverpool a much better football team. Both strikers scored, Coutinho created two assists, Firmino led the team in key passes. Having Sturridge, Coutinho, and Firmino on the pitch together will not only make Liverpool more potent, but also help to cover up some of the deficiencies in defense. I'm not comparing Liverpool's current side, or even Liverpool's potential, to 2013-14, but 2013-14 proved that a good attack can make up for defensive frailties and mistakes.

Liverpool are yet to lose when Daniel Sturridge starts this season (five matches, with three wins and two draws), and have lost just three of the 17 matches he's started over the last two seasons: at Manchester City, at Besiktas (in extra time), and v Manchester United last season. In total, Liverpool's record with him starting since 2014-15 is 11W-3D-3L. Six of those were cup ties, and I'm well aware you don't get points in cup ties, but that's an average of 2.12 points-per-game. That's an awful lot better than Liverpool's record without him.

As we're all well aware, Liverpool have found ways to fail against really really bad football teams before. Improvement is still improvement, and you can only beat what's in front of you. Liverpool haven't done that enough this season. And Liverpool certainly did yesterday.

14 February 2016

Liverpool 6-0 Aston Villa

Sturridge 16'
Milner 25'
Can 58'
Origi 63'
Clyne 65'
Toure 71'

Who would have guessed that having both Sturridge and Coutinho in Liverpool's starting XI would improve Liverpool's goal-scoring?

Also, Aston Villa are really bad.

It was a lot like the last time that Liverpool scored six goals. Which, incidentally, was also the last time that Daniel Sturridge started. A couple of early goals, with Sturridge playing a crucial part, then an excessive mauling as the opposition fell apart, repeatedly picked apart on counter-attacks.

Liverpool weren't even that good, at least in the first half, but Liverpool were clinical. That's been the difference all season long, why we've seen 4-1 City and 6-1 Southampton, but also 0-2 Newcastle and 0-1 United and and...

Daniel Sturridge has a lot to do with that. But so did Philippe Coutinho. His perfect cross assist for Sturridge's headed opener – which looked an awful lot like Milner's cross to Firmino for Liverpool's first against Sunderland. He won the the free kick for Liverpool's second, one of those dangerous positions where if it's on goal, it's often in, even if no one touches it. Which is exactly what happened when Milner stepped up. And then another assist, a divine throughball to Origi, during the second half demolition.

You've got to have someone who can play the damned piano. Ideally, more than one person. And Coutinho with attackers to pass to – you know, like Daniel Sturridge, or even Divock Origi – is much much better than Coutinho attempting to score unlikely goals from any and all angles from Benteke's layoffs.

So while Liverpool weren't any great shakes in the first half – at least, like we've seen before, Liverpool were unable to convert possession into lots of chances – Liverpool took the chances they had. That Sturridge seized Liverpool's first chance is no small matter; confidence is intangible and often inexplicable, but having Sturridge score early clearly boosted the side. And while last week demonstrated that 2-0 can be a dangerous lead, even against horrific opposition who'd done nothing in the opposition half, Liverpool made the match absolutely certain early in the second half.

We saw goals from two Liverpool strikers: Sturridge's opener and Origi for the fourth. We saw a goal from a wonderful through-ball and when one-on-one with the keeper: Again, Origi. We saw set play goals: Milner's direct free kick and Kolo's (KOLO'S!!!) header from Henderson's corner. We saw goals from crosses: Sturridge's opener and Kolo's header. We saw goals from pressing: Can's game-killing third. We saw goals from counter-attacks: Can, Origi, and Clyne. We saw goals from outside the box: Can, Origi, and Milner.

We saw Liverpool take just 11 shots, but nine of those 11 shots were on-target, and six ended in goals. We saw Liverpool create three clear-cut chances for the first time since beating City 4-1 in November, and Liverpool scored all three, the first time this season that Liverpool have scored three clear-cut chances in the league.

We saw Aston Villa take just six shots – half of them after Liverpool already had a six-goal lead – with only one on-target. We saw Villa offer absolutely nothing, partly because Villa don't have much to offer, but also because Liverpool didn't allow them opportunities to offer anything. Even when Villa had too much first-half possession in Liverpool's half, they couldn't do much with it.

Today truly couldn't have gone any better.

And yes, Aston Villa, now assuredly relegated, had more than a bit to do with today's successes. Still, Villa had been "in-form" coming into today, at least for Villa, with two wins and two draws in the last five matches, a vastly better short-term record than Liverpool's.

Liverpool owed Aston Villa that. Liverpool have been frustrated by almost-as-bad Villa sides in the past. Liverpool have dropped points to Villa in each of the last nine seasons; the last time Liverpool did the double over Villa was 2005-06. There's 1-2 in the FA Cup semifinal last year, 2-2 in 2013-14, 1-3 in 2012-13, etc., etc.

No matter the opposition, this was an important win. With Sturridge, Coutinho, and Origi returning (and, of course, if they can stay fit), this can be a form-changing win, especially as Liverpool's fixture list starts to lighten. But Liverpool have been ruthless before, and Liverpool have regressed before. 6-1 over Southampton was followed by 0-2 Newcastle and 0-0 Sion; 5-4 over Norwich was followed by 0-1 Stoke, 0-0 West Ham, and 0-2 Leicester.

This is just a start, and Liverpool still need to build on this. Liverpool need to ensure this isn't another one-off false dawn. But, at the very least, they've again shown what they're capable of doing.

13 February 2016

Liverpool at Aston Villa 02.14.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (h) 09.26.15
1-2 Villa (n; FA Cup) 04.19.15
2-0 Liverpool (a) 01.17.15
0-1 Villa (h) 09.13.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 West Ham aet (a); 2-2 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Leicester (a)
Villa: 2-0 Norwich (h); 0-2 West Ham (a); 0-4 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Firmino 6; Coutinho 5; Milner 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana, Milner, Sturridge 2; Allen, Origi, Skrtel 1
Villa: Ayew 5; Gestede 4; Carles Gil, Lescott, Sinclair 2; Agbonlahor, Grealish, Richards 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

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

Whoa. Liverpool are surprisingly close to fielding an honest-to-goodness first choice XI.

Lovren and Allen have short-term injuries to go with the well-remembered long-term: Ings, Gomez. Skrtel's just back in training, probably not ready to start until Thursday. Coutinho, Sturridge, and Origi are still a bit away from full match fitness.

But we're close. Closer than we've been since Klopp became manager.

That Sturridge starts, after a two-goal performance in the reverse fixture, isn't entirely out of the question, but it's easier to predict he'll be protected after playing for an hour on Tuesday given all that's come before. Ideally available off the bench, but otherwise saved for Augsburg on Thursday, isn't the worst situation.

Which seems to set up for the above 4-3-3: Henderson, Can, Milner in midfield; Lallana, Coutinho, Firmino in attack. Either Toure or Caulker will partner Sakho, along with the usual suspects at full-back. The speedy, clever triumvirate which – Sturridge aside – has been Liverpool's best attack, Henderson and Milner as runners from midfield (with Milner in his "better" position), and Can at the base. Liverpool will have lots of possession, and this front six gives Liverpool players who can carve through a packed defense, runners from midfield, crosses from full-back (albeit only to Firmino), players who can score from distance. In theory, Liverpool can play long, play close, play wide. Liverpool would have multiple options in attack.

If Coutinho (as well as Origi and Sturridge) isn't fit enough to start, it'll probably be Henderson, Can; Ibe, Lallana, Milner; Firmino. Which isn't ideal, but should still be strong enough at the league's worst team. Even if Liverpool have been failing to meet expectations in attack all season long.

Of course, there's still the elephant in the room. I doubt any outfield player who went for 120 minutes on Tuesday will start tomorrow, but Benteke again merits special mention. At least Benteke got into position to miss five or six good chances against West Ham? Still, he's clearly low on self-belief; it's been 668 minutes since he last scored. Normally, I'm all for playing players against their former club, but it's probably a recipe for disaster given Benteke's form and confidence.

As for Aston Villa. They've been better lately, but "better" is very much a relative term. Still 20th, seven points behind nineteenth and eight points from safety, but with two wins (and two draws) from the last five league matches, after going winless in the previous 19, their last (and only) league victory in 2015 this season coming on opening day.

That's more points from their last five games than Liverpool have taken.

With Jordan Ayew still suspended after a red card against West Ham, Villa's XI should look a lot like last week's. Bunn; Richards, Okore, Lescott, Cissokho; Bacuna, Gana, Westwood, Veretout; Carles Gil; Agbonalor. Grealish, Kozak, Sanchez, Hutton, Traore, and Amavi are injured; Gestede's doubtful. Agbonlahor has punished Liverpool multiple times – he absolutely loves playing against Liverpool – but I'd still rather him than Gestede, who absolutely trucked Liverpool in the reverse fixture, scoring both of Villa's goals (unsurprisingly, from crosses) and too close to a third on a couple of other occasions. Only the brilliance of Daniel Sturridge spared Liverpool's blushes. Liverpool, you may remember, remain fairly bad when defending crosses.

Villa will most likely play like a lot of opponents have played – and succeeded – against Liverpool this season. Sit deep, clog their defensive half, soak up pressure, look to counter attack. Take Villa's win over Norwich last Saturday as an example: Norwich were better for longer stretches – more possession, more shots, more shots on-target, a ton of corners – but conceded from a set play, then from a goalkeeper mistake. Conceded from the first shot on-target, conceded from an own goal. Two Villa shots on-target, two Villa goals. Liverpool are more than capable of doing similar.

So, as usual, the match will be decided by what Liverpool does. Whether Liverpool put their inevitable possession to good use, whether Liverpool can create chances and take said chances, whether Liverpool can stay secure and smart at the back. Whether we get Good Liverpool or Bad Liverpool.

That Liverpool's key attackers are finally close to fitness at least gives us more hope of seeing Good Liverpool.

09 February 2016

Liverpool 1-2 West Ham aet

Antonio 45'
Coutinho 48'
Ogbonna 120+1'

Liverpool lost on a last-minute extra-time goal, Liverpool displayed a handful of the same problems – and those problems are the reason that Liverpool lost – and yet there might still be more positives than negatives. Which is weird.

We know how we got here. Liverpool can't finish chances – even when they create some decent ones – and Liverpool struggle to defend crosses: one from open play, one from a set play, both to the back post. All four of West Ham's goals against Liverpool at Upton Park this season came from crosses to the back post. It's not a coincidence.

But a very young Liverpool side (again) mostly outplayed a much more experienced West Ham side, this time on their own ground. Liverpool started with a midfield of Kevin Stewart, Pedro Chirivella, and Joao Teixeira – a combined 12 appearances prior to today; 22, 18, and 23 years old respectively – and more than matched West Ham's triumvirate of Mark Noble, Cheick Kouyate, and Pedro Obiang. Meanwhile, Liverpool's center-backs were Lucas and Ilori, and both did surprisingly well, Lucas' concession of the free kick for West Ham's winner not withstanding. The returning Coutinho, Sturridge, and Origi all played an hour – the first scoring Liverpool's lone goal from a clever free kick, with Sturridge also coming close on a couple of opportunities.

But if you miss multiple chances and fail to fix defensive deficiencies, you're probably going to lose most matches. As Liverpool is, by now, well aware.

• 15' - Benteke at the back post from a corner, saved
• 29' - Teixeira from 12 yards out, just wide
• 34' - Coutinho from close range, off the post
• 34' - Stewart's rebound from Coutinho's shot, blocked
• 35' - Benteke at the back post from a corner, again, saved
• 56' - Benteke, eight yards out, blocked
• 80' - Benteke's clever free kick, saved
• 90' - Ibe vicious left-footer from distance, saved
• 99' - Benteke from the top of the box, wide
• 99' - Benteke one-on-one with Randolph, saved
• 108' - Sturridge, just outside the box, just over the bar
• 109' - Origi, from a tight left-footed angle, wide of the near post

It's not as if West Ham were without chances of their own. In the first half, O'Brien hit the post, then Payet's free kick was saved onto the post before Mignolet parried Antonio's rebound. In the second half, Mignolet tipped over a no-angle outside-of-the boot shot from Antonio and Valencia mis-hit a header from Payet's wonderful cross, while Ilori could have also been called for a penalty on Valencia.

Liverpool had more and better chances, were dominant for longer spells. But Liverpool's couldn't take advantage. And then Ogbonna struck in added time of extra-time: a perfect free kick, out-jumping Stewart and Flanagan, with the added bonus that it was a Charmin-soft free kick unnecessarily conceded by Lucas but also unnecessarily called.

Over the two matches, Liverpool outshot West Ham 38 to 26, 12 on-target to eight. Benteke had 13 of those shots – more than a third – with six on-target, five off-target, and two blocked. At least two were clear-cut chances. None led to a goal. He remains without a goal in 2016, having played 668 minutes over 11 and a half matches, six as a starter and six as a substitute. That's not good. With Sturridge and Origi returning, and if they stay fit (*knocks on every piece of wood in the house*), it's hard to see him staying in the side.

But, again, despite the disappointment as well as my usual proclivity for pessimism, I can't help but focus on the few positives. The above list of shots were still more and better chances than the side's created in recent matches, in most matches, even if only one led to a goal: Coutinho's clever free kick, hit under West Ham's jumping wall. The players who returned today will make a massive difference to the side. The kids are again alright: Stewart, Chirivella, and Teixeira most notably, but Ilori to a lesser extent, and even Brad Smith, despite having what seemed his worst match as a starter. I'd hope that Liverpool give them all more opportunities weeks to come, even if those opportunities will be harder to come by with Liverpool exiting this competition.

It'd have been nice to see Liverpool advance in another cup competition, but it's not as if they'll really rue missing yet another match this month. The benefit of an FA Cup run pretty much only benefited the above players who rarely play otherwise.

Today certainly wasn't perfect. Today again featured problems we've seen in the past. But it also wasn't last Saturday's late capitulation. It wasn't the attacking ineptitude we saw at Leicester or against Stoke in the second leg League Cup semifinal or any number of other matches. It wasn't the complete and utter failure at West Ham in the league, or Watford, or Newcastle. And it happened with an almost completely different XI than we usually see in league matches.

Maybe it's a sign of just how much the season's beaten me down, but I still can't help be grateful that at least we had positives and at least we can see promise, despite the result.

08 February 2016

Liverpool at West Ham 02.09.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h; FA Cup) 01.30.16
0-2 West Ham (a) 01.02.16
0-3 West Ham (h) 08.29.15
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.31.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Leicester (a); 0-0 West Ham (h)
West Ham: 0-1 Southampton (a); 2-0 Villa (h); 0-0 Liverpool (a)

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

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

Referee: Roger East

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Caulker Sakho Smith
Ibe Lucas Can Teixeira
Benteke Sturridge

*Looks at league table*

Yep, cups are all that really matter now. But this cup still matters slightly less than the other two cups, and Liverpool are still going to make a handful of changes. The side's still going to look more like the last meeting than the usual league XI.

At least three of the players who started ten days ago won't be available: Lovren and Allen after minor injuries incurred against Sunderland, and Cameron Brannagan, who's ill.

Meanwhile, Sturridge, Coutinho, and Origi are finally available, but all three won't start. Not after all three have been out for weeks, not with the possibility of extra time. I'm assuming Sturridge is the closest, solely because Sturridge was the only one included on the bench on Saturday.

Maybe none start, with one or two used off the bench if needed. Maybe I just want to see Sturridge back, and if he can play with Benteke. Liverpool don't play 4-4-2 often, but with Allen and Brannagan out, and Henderson in need of game management, Liverpool have few options in midfield: Lucas, Can, Milner, and Kevin Stewart. I doubt Lucas and Stewart – both very much defensively inclined and limited going forward – can play together. Milner's spent more time in attack lately, albeit out of necessity rather than performing better in that position. Neither Can nor Milner have even been included in the squad for a FA Cup match this season.

But, sure, 4-1-2-3 with Lucas or Stewart as the holder; two from Lucas, Can, Milner, Teixeira, and Coutinho ahead of him; two from Ibe, Teixeira, Ojo, Lallana, and Coutinho on the flanks; and Benteke up front is definitely a possibility. Or, in what I guess is the weakest possibility, 4-2-3-1 with, say, Lucas and Stewart behind Ibe, Teixeira, and Ojo, and Benteke up front. Fine. I just really want to see Sturridge back. 4-4-2 seems the best way to achieve that, even if it means conceding ground and possession against what'll likely be a three-man West Ham midfield.

Defense is a bit more straight-forward: Flanagan and Smith at full-back, Caulker at center-back, with either Toure or Sakho partnering him – whoever looks more capable of playing twice in four days. Also, play Danny Ward. Please play Danny Ward.

Meanwhile, West Ham are pretty much in the same position they were in 10 days ago. Four points and three places ahead of Liverpool in the table, and reasonably competent in the two matches in between: a routine 2-0 win over 10-man Villa and a battling, narrow 0-1 loss when unable to break through 10 men at Southampton. They're still missing a few key players – Tomkins, Kouyate, Lanzini, and Sakho are injured; Sam Byram's cup-tied – but nowhere near as many as Liverpool.

And they'll probably make a couple of changes as well, but it'll be still be a reasonably strong side. Let's guess Randolph for Adrian in goal; Ogbonna for either Collins or Reid; Obiang in midfield; and Carroll for Valencia. Something like Randolph; O'Brien, Reid, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Obiang, Song, Noble; Moses, Carroll, Payet. Which is very similar to both the side that stifled Liverpool at Anfield in the previous meeting, and that whomped Liverpool 0-2 the last time Liverpool traveled to Upton Park. West Ham's ability to sit deep and smother and counter, Payet's ability to create, Carroll's ability on crosses. It's been a recipe for disaster far too often in recent meetings.

We've reached the point where these matches stop being more trouble than they're worth, partly because of the stage of the competition and partly because of Liverpool's woeful league form. They're opportunities rather than hindrances. An opportunity to continue Liverpool's decent record in cup competition. An opportunity for a few players who otherwise wouldn't start. An opportunity to finally get one over on a West Ham side that's had Liverpool's number far too often of late. An opportunity to put the last ten minutes against Sunderland firmly in the past.

Take advantage of the opportunity.

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland

Previous Match Infographics: Leicester (a) Stoke [League Cup] (h), 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)

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

Ten bad minutes can erase the 20 good ones which came before. As well as the 60 indifferent minutes that came before that.

Another late goal conceded? Yep. Two, in fact – the tenth and eleventh goals that Liverpool have conceded after the 75th minute this season in all competitions (ten in the league, one in the Europa League). Liverpool have won just one of the matches where they've conceded in the last 15 matches: the 5-4 victory at Norwich. In total, Liverpool's record when conceding in the last 15 minutes is 1W-3D-6L.

Another set play goal conceded? Yep. The 14th set play goal that Liverpool have conceded this season, from 45 goals conceded in total. That's nearly a third of Liverpool's goals conceded. To be fair, this was the first direct free kick that Liverpool have conceded from this season, but dead ball situations are dead ball situations, and Liverpool remain bad at them. Those 14 goals have come in 12 matches (two set play goals for both West Brom and Norwich). In total, Liverpool's record in those 12 matches is 2W-6D-4L.

Another goal conceded due to a goalkeeper error? Yep. It's the sixth time that's happened; those goals were 2-1 Sunderland, 1-2 Exeter, 0-1 Watford, 1-1 West Brom, 0-1 Bordeaux, and 1-1 Norwich. Which is probably being generous (at the least, Crystal Palace's winner should count as one, and probably some others I've repressed), but those are the Opta-defined goalkeeper errors. Four from Mignolet, two from Bogdan. Six times it's happened, and Liverpool have won just one of those six matches. Liverpool's record in those six matches is 1W-4D-1L.

Liverpool let a lead slip for the eighth time this season, failing to win despite taking the lead: 1-0 against Bordeaux, Norwich, Carlisle, Sion, Everton, Southampton, West Brom, and Arsenal turns into a draw, six of the eight finished 1-1, with a 2-2 and a 3-3 draw as well. Liverpool also went 1-0 up on Norwich, which turned into 1-3, which turned into 5-4.

To be fair, five of those nine matches happened under the previous manager. But this is the first time this season that Liverpool let a two-goal lead slip. Of course, Liverpool have also rarely had a two-goal lead this season: 11 minutes against Villa, eight minutes at Chelsea, 67 minutes at City, 45 minutes at Southampton in the league cup, 16 against Exeter in the FA Cup, and 12 minutes on Saturday. And that's it. 159 minutes, out of 3570 minutes of football in total this season.

When you so rarely out-score the opposition, and every single match seems to be paper-thin, knife-edge narrow, you can't keep doing stupid things in defense.

I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the "Liverpool have conceded from the first shot on-target in 21 of the 26 games where Liverpool have conceded this season" stat. Sure, there's more than a bit of misfortunate in there, but it's also a condemnation of the entire defense, not just Mignolet, and it's still an unfathomable record. Saturday was a helpful example of how pretty much everyone's at fault: the first goal completely on Mignolet's shoulders, the second a comprehensive breakdown where Liverpool gave the ball away from a throw-in, failed to clear, allowed Sunderland to play across the width of the final third, allowed van Aanholt an easy entry pass to Khazri in the box, before Khazri turned Toure and Defoe turned Sakho.

It'd make up for it if Liverpool were doing even close to similar at the other end of the pitch. Unsurprisingly, they aren't. Liverpool have scored in 28 matches this season. They've scored from the first shot on-target in just nine: 5-4 Norwich, 2-2 Exeter, 6-1 Southampton, 2-1 Bordeaux, 4-1 Manchester City, 1-0 Kazan, 1-1 Sion, 3-2 Villa, 1-0 Bournemouth. Seven wins, two draw. Four in the league (all wins), three in the Europa League (two wins, one draw), once in the League Cup (win), once in the FA Cup (draw). That's, uh, somewhat worse than the opposition's record.

Liverpool are averaging 5.31 shots on-target per match in all competitions. Which is okay! They're fourth-best in the league for total shots on-target. On average, in matches where Liverpool have scored, they're scoring with their 2nd or 3rd shot on-target (2.43, if we're going by the exact average). And in total, Liverpool are averaging 3.98 shots on-target per goal. That's less good. Liverpool simply aren't converting enough, not that this is news to anyone. The best attacking performances have few and far between, and otherwise, Liverpool are infinitely frustrating at worst and mediocre more often than not.

Meanwhile, Liverpool's opponents are averaging 2.6 shots on-target per goal. Liverpool's save percentage in all competitions is 61.54%. The opposition's save percentage in all competitions is 74.88%. In the league, it's 58.8% for Liverpool and 73.7% for Liverpool's opponents. And the league average is 69.4%. Conceding twice from just two shots on-target yesterday, Liverpool have now passed Bournemouth for the worst save percentage in the league. Only Tottenham have faced fewer shots on-target than Liverpool this season.

If it's not one end of the pitch, it's the other. And sometimes, it's both. Again.

Are there any bright spots? Well, football folks who know a lot more about this nonsense than I do think there's a fair bit of flukiness involved in Liverpool's woes. That's something.

Otherwise, at least Roberto Firmino's becoming one hell of a player. A goal and an assist on Saturday, involved in seven of Liverpool's last ten league goals (five goals, two assists), involved in pretty much everything good that Liverpool did against Sunderland. He's scored with his left foot, his right foot, and his head; he's scored from crosses, from distance, from pressing opposition defenders into mistakes; he's assisted with layoffs, cutbacks, and crosses.

By my count, Firmino has played as a striker in nine league matches this season: eight as the lone striker, once in a partnership with Origi/Benteke (1-0 at Leicester). In those matches:

He still can go missing in games (0-2 Leicester, 0-3 Watford), his shot accuracy can still improve (five of those nine matches were without a single shot on-target). But he's finally fully adapting to a new team, new league, and new position, and he's done it without a lot of help from his teammates.

It bodes well for the future. Unfortunately, not enough else does.

06 February 2016

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland

Firmino 59'
Lallana 70'
Johnson 82'
Defoe 89'

The easy joke is that the Liverpool players joined a large portion of the stadium in walking out after 77 minutes. They aren't – or, at least shouldn't be – related events. Sure, it probably didn't help matters, but if you buy a ticket, you've the right to do whatever you want with it. And you don't get to criticize those in the stadium from the comfort of your couch or the local pub.

The players, however, are paid to play for 90 minutes. And they didn't. That's it. That's the alpha, that's the omega. That's Liverpool.

2-0 in the 70th minute, against a team that hadn't scored against Liverpool since March 2014, should have led to a routine win if the stadium completely emptied. If Liverpool's entire back line spontaneously combusted. Under any circumstances. It took 59 minutes, because Liverpool, but Liverpool finally had control of the situation. Liverpool should have maintained control of the situation. Liverpool didn't.

For 59 minutes, par for the course. Liverpool utterly dominate possession – 81.6% in the first half, the highest percentage I've ever seen – but Liverpool struggle to create chances, struggle to take shots, take said shots in poor positions, and put the majority of said shots off-target. But then, two excellent goals: a wonderful cross from Milner finding Firmino open at the back post (aided by van Aanholt's "marking"), then Firmino pressing Jones into a mistake before running on goal and centering for Lallana's tap-in. The assist made both of those goals, during a three-match spell where Liverpool had failed to create those types of chances. There had been 359 minutes of goalless football from Liverpool between Lallana's winner against Norwich and Firmino's opener, but then, all of a sudden, two in ten minutes.

Hurrah! 2-0 up against second-from-bottom Sunderland, who'd barely attempted to play football, who'd taken just four shots in 80 minutes: all off-target, three of four from outside the box. Fine. Cruise control. We'll spend the final 15 minutes talking about the fans' protest – which, again, isn't something I'd be comfortable doing but is completely understandable and more than within their rights – and leave with three much-needed points.

But, no, because Liverpool. A free kick from nothing, an unnecessary foul by Moreno. A wall that failed to block Johnson's free kick, which somehow snuck under Mignolet's hand. Another set play goal conceded. Another concession from the opposition's first shot on-target, for the 21st time in the 26 matches where Liverpool have conceded. 21 of 26. There aren't even words.

Fine. Shit happens. Very much against the run of play, a perfectly-placed shot, a bit of a fluke both with and without context. Just collect yourselves and see the game out. Just do your damned jobs. Ha. Ha ha ha ha. Because it only got worse. Because, somehow, every single Liverpool player lost their minds. Because Liverpool.

Back to all those Rodgers' performances where Liverpool let a lead slip, all those 1-0 wins which somehow turned into 1-1 draws, a failing we'd thought we'd fixed after those first few Klopp draws. Liverpool couldn't collect, Liverpool couldn't clear. Liverpool players stand off Sunderland's, Sunderland's players allowed time and space to pass in front of Liverpool's box, allowed the opportunity to find a way through for the second. Lucas brought on to add an extra defensive presence does nothing. And with a minute left in normal time, van Aanholt in space passes to Khazri, back to goal, allowed to turn. Khazri passes to Defoe in the box, back to goal, allowed to turn. And Defoe summarily and simply turns around Sakho, hammering past a flat-footed Mignolet.

From 2-0 to 2-2 in seven minutes, against the 19th-placed side. Against a side that hadn't scored any sort of goal against Liverpool in almost two years. At Anfield. It'd be unbelievable if it wasn't so very Liverpool. Liverpool have now conceded 10 goals in the last 15 minutes of matches this season – three in Rodgers' 11 matches, seven in Klopp's 28; six at Anfield, four away from home. It's not a protest problem, a fans' problem. It's not a Rodgers problem, it's not a Klopp problem. It's not an Anfield problem. It's a Liverpool problem.

So here we are again. Stuck with an underperforming, disappointing, simply bad football team. There are either breakdowns in attack or breakdowns at the back, and often both. Somehow decent, tepid, and horrific, all within 90 minutes. It seems that Liverpool find a way to throw away points in new, inventive, and soul-killing fashion every single week.

Once again, it's sound and fury signifying nothing. And not even that much sound or fury. A nothing result. A nothing performance. Liverpool have become irrelevant. And Liverpool are very close to becoming just another mid-table side.