21 October 2016

Liverpool v West Brom 10.22.16

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

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 05.15.16
2-2 (h) 12.13.15
0-0 (a) 04.25.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.04.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 United (h); 2-1 Swansea (a); 5-1 Hull (h)
West Brom: 1-1 Tottenham (h); 1-1 Sunderland (a); 1-1 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Milner 4; Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Mané 3; Henderson, Lovren 1
West Brom: Chadli 4; Rondon 3; McAuley, McClean 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

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

It appears we're back to full-strength, first-choice Liverpool. Just in time for one of our least favorite fixtures of the season.

As for those struggling with minor injuries: Lallana seems a certainty simply because he was fit enough for half-an-hour five days ago. If Wijnaldum's not ready, Can will probably keep his place; if Milner's still bothered, it'll be Moreno.

I wouldn't expect Sturridge to start unless there are multiple absentees, as there were in the last match. As crazy as it is to write, Liverpool have usually been better without him this season. Maybe that's more down to opposition, and he'd be more effective against the sit-deep-and-hoof likes of West Brom, but I still we'll see the "preferred" XI, with Sturridge used as a substitute when or if needed.

Otherwise, same worries, different day. Up against a deep, determined defense who's okay at counter-attacking and excellent at set plays. Liverpool did it against Hull and Leicester, but didn't do enough against United. We've said we need to see Liverpool succeed against this style more consistently, and they'll have to do it against a side and manager that routinely foil and flummox.

It's a Tony Pulis side. You know the drill. Blunt the opposition's attack by any means necessary, hoof to height. Win set plays, score from set plays. And it often leads to a dire, dispiriting match, one where Liverpool often drop points.


At least Liverpool are at Anfield, where they've won three and drawn four against Tony Pulis teams, compared to one win, five draws, and three losses away from home.

But, regardless of venue, the last time Liverpool beat a Tony Pulis side in the league was February 2011, a match notable for Luis Suarez' Liverpool debut. There were two cup wins in 2011-12, the season Liverpool made both domestic cup finals, but otherwise, two draws and two losses against Stoke, a draw we won't discuss at Crystal Palace, and three consecutive draws against West Brom since 2011. The only times Liverpool have kept clean sheets, the match ended 0-0.

Unsurprisingly, this Tony Pulis side is a lot like all the others. Five of West Brom's nine league goals have come from set plays (two open play, one counter-attack, one penalty), including two of the last three that have led to three successive 1-1 draws. Four of the five set-play goals have been corners, three of those four have been clear-cut chances.

I doubt I need remind that both of West Brom's goals in this fixture last season came from set plays. And came from West Brom's only two shots on-target.

At least West Brom's line-up is predictable. They've no injuries, but Jonny Evans is suspended, which could be a big miss in defense. The XI will almost certainly be Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Nyom; Fletcher, Yacob; Phillips, Chadli, McClean; Rondon.

Maybe Saido Berahino or Jonathan Leko gets a look-in because counter-attacks, maybe Craig Gardner in midfield for set piece delivery, but those seem doubtful. As usual for Pulis, it's been a very settled XI. And Nacer Chadli has been the star since signing for a club-record fee at the end of August, with four goals and two assists in his five matches. West Brom has scored all of seven goals in those five matches; he's had a hand in six. Rondon's a danger as well, Pulis' favorite type of all-around target-man, but it's Chadli who's wreaked all the havoc lately, the much-needed link between Rondon and everyone else behind the ball.

The second phase of the season starts now. The first phase saw Liverpool play five of the tougher sides in the league in the first eight games. Liverpool's next eight league games are against West Brom, Palace, Watford, Southampton, Sunderland, Bournemouth, West Ham, and Boro: one promoted side, two sides who finished top-half last season but have disappointed so far in this, and the five teams that finished 13th through 17th last season.

We're all aware that Liverpool have been both better and more consistent when facing better opposition. Now Liverpool have an extended run to show they can do it against the type of sides they often disappointed against. And it starts with Tony Pulis.

18 October 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United

Previous Match Infographics: Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

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

It seems fitting that this was Liverpool's first league clean sheet in this already strange season. It was Liverpool's first 0-0 in the league since Klopp's first match at Tottenham exactly one year ago. It was Liverpool's first 0-0 at home in the league since Sunderland in December 2014. And it came in a fixture that hadn't finished 0-0 in 11 years.

We all got Mourinho'd. A wet fart in what's usually an ugly but at least closely fought fixture. A fixture that both sides at least usually try to win. A match best defined by a late substitution: Ashley Young finding a way to waste a minute after his number came up in injury time, ambling towards the center circle rather the bench he was yards away from, eventually shoved off by an incredulous Emre Can.

It was all so Jose Mourinho. And it's annoying that Jose Mourinho so thoroughly Mourinho'd. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. But we've all been Mourinho'd much worse in the past.

Jose clearly learned from the Manchester Derby. Sure, United were home in that match, but more important was that United tried to be more adventurous, with Fellaini and Pogba "holding" and a front four of Ibra, Rooney, Mkhitaryan, and Lingard. And United were blown away in the opening 40 minutes, with City scoring twice before Bravo's error got United within touching distance but no closer. He learned that his United couldn't go toe-to-toe with an above average attacking side, not yet and hopefully not ever.

So the way the Manchester Derby went absolutely wasn't happening yesterday. Herrera came into midfield for added control. United's back four sat approximately a mile deeper, with both Bailly and Smalling all but banned from passing in their own half to counteract Liverpool's press. Young and Rashford stayed as wide as possible, with United's "attack" focused on long balls and crosses, and Ibrahimovic did little more than receive long balls and crosses (and commit fouls). They would've liked to go the set play route, still a massive Liverpool liability, but it's hard to win set plays when you don't attack, with just one corner and three attacking free kicks (two crosses, one wild direct shot).

United's front six pressed fairly effectively for the first 30 minutes (all three of their free kicks came during this spell), especially in the middle third. And it unsettled Liverpool, with the home side not helped by the midfield changes. But United also quickly got into deep defensive possession if Liverpool got into United's half, and also clearly tired by the hour mark, sitting in what was basically a 6-3-1 formation for the majority of the second half.

Mourinho came to do what he did when Chelsea murder-death-killed Liverpool's title bid in 2013-14. He got the 0-0, but he didn't get the 0-1 or 0-2.

35% possession is Manchester United's lowest Premier League total since 2002-03. United took all of two shots in the box – both headers – and that accounted for 33% of their total touches in Liverpool's penalty area. 90 minutes. Six touches in the opposition box. Liverpool only took nine shots, half of their average for the season so far, but United took just seven, 44% of their 16-shots-per-game average.

So both sides got Mourinho'd.

Is this what United will be happy with? The most expensively assembled side the world wholly parking the bus against their bitter rivals? Congrats, guys.

This isn't to detract from United's defensive performance, which really was quite good. De Gea and Herrera especially, but also the entire back four. Blocks, tackles, interceptions, clearances. Denying space for passes, denying opportunities to dribble. Mané and Sturridge both rendered irrelevant, both failing to register a shot or create a chance. But it is to ridicule both their ambition and their attack, in a match that usually means the world to both clubs.

So be it. Liverpool still need to improve in cutting through both an early press and packed defenses; as Klopp said (which he also said after Burnley), patience is a virtue. It's gotten better, it's getting better, but Liverpool are still frustrated too easily. But we're still only eight games into the campaign.

Liverpool also clearly missed Lallana and Wijnaldum in midfield, and it's no coincidence that Lallana's entrance on the hour led to increased Liverpool control, although United's inability to match Liverpool's pace and work-rate for 90 minutes certainly helped. Emre Can unsurprisingly struggled early on, but at least got better throughout the match, and nearly won the match with Liverpool's best chance of the game.

The short version is that we're rightfully annoyed, but at least Liverpool didn't make mistakes. Well, Liverpool didn't make any costly mistakes, conceding possession too easily when pressed early on but quickly back into position to ensure nothing came of it. The one clear defensive horror show – Karius' bad pass after Lovren returned the ball to him around the hour mark – went unpunished when Ibrahimovic couldn't get back onside (and missed the chance anyway).

Still, Manchester United also had the only clear-cut chance of the match: Ibrahimovic's header from a deep cross, only able to put the ball across the six-yard box to no one rather than on goal. Which was about as weak a clear-cut chance as you'll see (I'm stunned it survived the Opta update). 

Meanwhile, Liverpool's best two chances weren't high-value chances – Can surrounded by defenders in the 59th, Coutinho from distance in the 71st – but both would have been goals against the majority of keepers in the Premier League.

It's worth mentioning Valencia's impressive last man tackle on Firmino midway through the second half, but once again, and as always against United, there was David De Gea in the way. As in last season's meeting at Anfield, which ended 0-1 because Liverpool couldn't defend a solitary set play. Even in the Europa League at Anfield last season, where De Gea heroically kept the scoreline down to 2-0 as the world burned around him. Just leave for Real Madrid already.

Again, so be it. It's a better result than Liverpool got in the last four league matches against United. It's a point more than they got last season, even if Liverpool played "better" on that day. Through eight matches, Liverpool now have six points more than they took from comparable fixtures last season.

Be annoyed Liverpool didn't attack as well as we know they can, be annoyed Liverpool didn't score, but also be pleased Liverpool didn't bollux anything up either. It could have been Burnley (congratulations United, that's the first side I think to compare to), but it wasn't. Take the point, and as Liverpool did after the Burnley match, learn from proceedings and move on.

15 October 2016

Liverpool v Manchester United 10.17.16

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 03.17.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.10.16
0-1 United (h) 01.17.16
1-3 United (a) 09.12.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Swansea (a); 5-1 Hull (h); 3-0 Derby (a)
United: 1-1 Stoke (h); 1-0 Zorya (h); 4-1 Leicester (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Milner 4; Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Mané 3; Henderson, Lovren 1
United: Ibrahimovic 4; Rashford 3; Mata 2; Martial, Pogba, Rooney, Smalling 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Henderson Can Coutinho
Mané Sturridge Firmino

Like last month, the international break was unnecessary and boring but not too harmful. Three players suffering with minor problems had more time to recover, and only Gini Wijnaldum picked up an injury.

So it appears that Liverpool have just two of the usual starters doubtful for this, the most important and anxious of fixtures: Wijnaldum after this week's hamstring pull and Lallana still bothered by the groin problem suffered at Swansea. If either are available, Sturridge is probably left out. I've no real idea, but it seems safer to guess that both are out, which would almost certainly require Coutinho to play in midfield – as he did after changes at Swansea – with Firmino and Mané flanking Sturridge. If possible, Lallana seems marginally more likely to play, just because his injury came a few days earlier.

Lovren and Clyne also dealt with knocks over the international break but are much more likely to be available. But maybe that's just hope, because I don't want to see what happens to Liverpool's defense with both of them missing. Not that I really want to watch Liverpool's defense in any match.

Liverpool have only played two home games this season, but we've seen Liverpool at its best in both: 4-1 over Leicester and 5-1 over Hull. An immediate Liverpool onslaught, opening goals within 20 minutes, a second to extend the lead within 35. Because Liverpool, a concession to give the opposition a modicum of hope, but Liverpool's class winning out, Liverpool's blitzkrieg adding more.

Doing that again would obviously be helpful. But Liverpool matches against Manchester United rarely go according to form or plan. Which may well benefit United. Because we've seen all facets of United's form so far in this short season.

Manchester United are still fighting with the demons accrued over the last couple of years, Louis van Gaal's two seasons still linger. They've underwhelmed at times, they've underperformed at times, and they've looked bang back at it at times.

They started the season as they hoped, with a Community Shield victory followed by three successive league wins. But then the Manchester Derby happened. Then two more consecutive losses happened, including a loss upon return to Europe and an embarrassing 1-3 defeat at Watford. That was followed by a bounce-back against Leicester, a 4-1 win that flattered but still impressed. Then a narrow but routine 1-0 in the Europa League. Then a home match against Stoke where United played even better than they did against Leicester, but drew 1-1 because of finishing and because of Joe Allen.

Swings and roundabouts and peaks and valleys already, under a new manager with different needs and a slightly different system, and still only three points behind Liverpool. It obviously helps when you have the money to spend more on one player last summer than Liverpool have in the last four seasons (net spend, of course).

We pretty much know what we're getting with United's XI. 4-2-3-1: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Herrera, Pogba; Martial, Mata, Rashford; Ibrahimovic. The big question, as for United as it's been for England, is what to do about Wayne Rooney. Both club and country have been better without him this season, but he's still Wayne Rooney, who still loves playing against Liverpool. I wouldn't be surprised to see him, in place of either Martial or Rashford, with Mata moving out to the right. United's one other line-up decision is Fellaini or Herrera: the more cohesive midfielder (and the better player) or the more physical? Outplay and out-pass Liverpool on their own ground or unsettle Liverpool with height and elbows?

I doubt I need remind how Liverpool routinely struggled against van Gaal's United, at least in the league, with four consecutive league losses against United: three under Rodgers, one under Klopp. Fellaini was a big part of most of those, but Liverpool were a big part of most of those, especially in the one meeting under Klopp. Control the game but don't take your chances and inevitably concede, often on a set play.

United are still bigger and taller than Liverpool, and United are still dangerous on set plays, with four goals from free kicks and corners.

But we also saw what Liverpool were capable of in last season's Europa League meetings. A thorough 2-0 win at home that would have been so much more if not for De Gea, a 1-1 draw away from home where United faded and collapsed after Liverpool's equalizer. That's what Klopp's Liverpool can do to Manchester United, that's what Klopp's Liverpool can do to almost any other side.

Still, this is a different season. It's a different Liverpool – still dangerous at the back, but much much more dangerous up front – and a different Manchester United. With new players bought at eye-watering prices, and a new manager who's consistently foiled and flummoxed Liverpool throughout his career.

But it's still Liverpool and it's still Manchester United. It's still Liverpool versus Manchester United. Just remember to breathe.

03 October 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Swansea

Previous Match Infographics: Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

That could and probably should have gone a lot worse. But it didn't. But Liverpool won.

Whether that's reassuring or a sign of imminent disaster depends on your weltanschauung.

Over the last year, if Klopp's Liverpool doesn't score in the first half, Klopp's Liverpool are often in trouble. As said in Saturday's match review, that had happened in 16 games prior to this weekend; Liverpool won just four, drawing five and losing seven. And Liverpool were level at 0-0 in three of those four wins, eking out 1-0 victories; the only comeback was 2-1 at Crystal Palace thanks to Benteke's very late and slightly dubious penalty. Liverpool had failed to score in the first half just once this season, and I suspect you still remember the 0-2 loss at Burnley.

Liverpool didn't even put a shot on-target in the first half on Saturday.

It's not as if Klopp's Liverpool necessarily come out guns blazing – Liverpool have actually scored the lowest percentage of goals in the first 15 minutes under Klopp compared to the previous four Liverpool managers – but they tend to score a lot between the 16th and 45th minutes, 38% of all goals scored since Klopp became manager.

Just look at the first goal in the games so far this season:

- Arsenal: 45'
- Burton Albion: 15'
- Tottenham: 43'
- Leicester: 13'
- Chelsea: 17'
- Derby: 24'
- Hull: 17'

Win, win, draw, win, win, win, win. News flash: early Liverpool goals are often good things, and often lead to more.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have conceded a first-half opening goal in nine of Klopp's 36 league matches prior to Saturday. They came back to beat Chelsea (a) and Arsenal (a), drew with Chelsea (h) and West Brom (a), and lost to Palace (h), Watford (a), West Ham (h), Swansea (a), and Burnley (a).

There's a pretty clear distinction between classes of opposition. Liverpool can come back against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal, but Liverpool have usually been absolutely boned when conceding early against the likes of Watford, West Ham, Burnley.

And the likes of Swansea, which we saw in last season's 1-3 loss, but which was admittedly with a radically different and under-strength XI. Still, the pattern held.

It didn't hold on Saturday.

Swansea certainly started the better side. They should have opened the scoring in the fifth minute. They did open the scoring in the eighth. Swansea had four clear-cut in the first 26 minutes, somehow only converting one (two missed, both headers, and one saved).

Through the first six league matches of the season, Liverpool had allowed just four clear-cut chances combined: one at Arsenal, two v Leicester, and one at Chelsea.

The most clear-cut chances that Liverpool had previously allowed in a match under Klopp was three, in three different matches last season: 0-3 at Watford, 3-3 v Arsenal, and 1-3 at Swansea. Since 2012-13, Liverpool had allowed four clear-cut chances in four matches: 1-6 at Stoke in 2014-15, 3-2 at QPR in 2014-15 (lol QPR), 1-3 at Southampton in 2012-13, and 1-2 at United in 2012-13. And that's it.

Five clear-cut chances is an egregious amount even for "free-scoring" Liverpool. They've had four or more clear-cut chances in just three league matches under Klopp: 4-1 at Manchester City, 4-1 v Leicester, and 5-1 v Hull. That Swansea created that many chances that good and scored just once is a bit bonkers.

All four of Swansea's first-half big chances came from crosses, as did the fifth in second-half added time, which could have easily spoiled Liverpool's comeback. Two of the early four came from set plays.

How did they happen?

5' - Loss of Liverpool possession on Matip's hopeful cross-field pass leads to a counter down Liverpool's left
8' - Lallana dispossessed in final third leads to counter leads to corner
21' - Swansea possession with Liverpool down to 10 men after Lallana's injury, Sigurðsson's chipped cross coming from the area where Lallana plays
26' - Henderson fouls Cork when Swansea attack from a long header out of defense

To recap: four of four from crosses, three of four from quick transitions from Swansea's half, two of four from set plays. Four clear-cut chances from five shots in total. Liverpool still don't allow a lot of chances, but Liverpool still allow high-value chances.

In case you were wondering where Liverpool still have issues. In case you somehow weren't already aware.

So it should have been game over within half an hour. It should have been an even clearer repeat of 0-2 Burnley, with Liverpool needing a much more difficult comeback. Liverpool were very, very lucky it wasn't. And that luck is a big reason why Francesco Guidolin's out of a job this morning.

But, by hook and by crook, Liverpool held on for those first 30 minutes. Liverpool took 10 or so minutes to settle after Sturridge's introduction, adjusting to the new shape. From five Swansea shots in the first 26 minutes to just three for the rest of the match: Sigurðsson's deep free kick saved in the 44th, Fulton's header blocked in the 72nd, and van der Hoorn late late late chance. From just one Liverpool shot in the first 26 minutes (Lallana from distance not close) to 17 in the subsequent 65.

Still, it ain't as if Liverpool were any great shakes, at least from open play. Swansea still blocked half of Liverpool's total shots. Six of Liverpool's 10 in-box shots were blocked, six of Liverpool's 10 in-box shots came from set plays or the penalty.

And Liverpool's two clear-cut chances came from a set play and a penalty. Thankfully, and in contrast to Swansea, Liverpool took advantage of both of them.

It was just Liverpool's second headed goal of the season, after Firmino's against Burton Albion. It was just Liverpool's third free kick goal, after Coutinho's direct blast at Arsenal and Lovren's back post strike at Chelsea. But it was Liverpool's fourth penalty of the season, through just seven games.

Liverpool won just two penalties in last season's league campaign: Ibe's cross handled by Neil Taylor against Swansea and Benteke brought down at Crystal Palace. And that's it.

This season, Firmino has twice been brought down in the box, Sturridge brought down once, and Elmohamady handled Coutinho's goal-bound effort. It's early, small sample size, random variance, etc but this seems an example of Liverpool's better movement in the final third and increased willingness to get into the box and do something in said box.

That's something.

Basically, the takeaways are easy to pick out. It's reassuring that Liverpool had the fortitude to come back despite all the evil early on, with similar starts leading to awful results in the past. It's reassuring that Liverpool did it despite the long-standing precedent of not being able to do it often enough in this sort of fixture. It's reassuring that Liverpool did it away from home, at a ground where they've historically suffered, and despite needing to change shape and tactics after 20 minutes due to an injury to one of Liverpool's best players so far this season.

But Liverpool still need to do better. Liverpool still need to start better away from home in "winnable" matches; Liverpool still need to defend better against crosses, set plays, and quick transitions. Liverpool still struggle and concede chances when opposition forwards press in Liverpool's half. Liverpool still struggle against deep defenses in open play, even if slightly less than than they have in the past.

Liverpool could have lost, Liverpool probably should have drawn, but Liverpool won.

And we've seen similar to that before as well. Barely October and beginning to draw parallels with 2013-14 probably isn't clever, but we saw this match a few times that season, most notably 2-0 v Hull (needing two set plays to break down a side that embarrassed Liverpool earlier in the season) and 2-1 at West Ham (Gerrard scoring two penalties, Liverpool conceding from a corner to make it nervous).

Win when you don't play well. Survive and come back in a difficult away match. By any means necessary, take the points, learn from it and move on. And then do better next time.

01 October 2016

Liverpool 2-1 Swansea

Fer 8'
Firmino 54'
Milner 84' (pen)


Let's get one thing clear. That was bad. The first half was, no exaggeration, as bad a half as we've seen since Klopp became manager. Liverpool should have been behind by much more than a single goal. It felt like, and was almost the scoreline of, the we're-still-talking-about-it Burnley loss.

But Liverpool won. And that Liverpool won – despite going a goal down early, despite conceding from yet another set play, despite losing Lallana to injury in the 20th minute, despite being behind at halftime, despite failing to put a single shot (from all of four in total) on target in the first half, in one of those much-discussed pitfall away matches – is almost more reassuring than if Liverpool had comfortably won 4-1. Almost.

Just like at Burnley, it started in the worst possible manner. Swansea should have taken the lead three minutes before they did: their first attack, their first of four clear-cut chances, but Borja's header between the center-backs over. Then, their first corner, their first shot on-target, their first goal: Borja beating Clyne at the back post, Lovren deflecting the flick-on to Fer, open for the tap-in. At that point, Karius had faced three corners and two shots on-target and Liverpool had conceded two goals. It's hard to blame him for either.

And there was little response from Liverpool, one long-range not-close shot from Lallana in the ninth minute the sum of Liverpool's attack until the 35th minute. In between, Lallana groin injury saw him replaced by Sturridge, with Coutinho moving into midfield, while Swansea had two more clear-cut chances: Cork tamely hit a deep cross from close range at Karius, while Borja (offside but not called) headed wide when open on another set play.

Liverpool's two decent attacks in the final ten minutes of the half – better than the first 35 at least! – were both blocked by Amat. Again, just like Burnley, Swansea pressed Liverpool into problems, Swansea defended brilliantly, and Swansea had the lead. Even more deservedly than Burnley did.

To put it bluntly, Liverpool have been terrible when they've failed to score in the first half since Klopp became manager. It had happened 16 times in the league. Liverpool had won just four – 1-0 v Swansea, 1-0 v Leicester, 1-0 at Sunderland, and 2-1 at Crystal Palace – drawing five and losing seven. Other than the Palace hilarity, Liverpool needed to keep a clean sheet to do it. Liverpool haven't yet kept a clean sheet in the league this season. Liverpool have kept just one clean sheet away from home in the league in 2016, a 6-0 win at indescribably bad Aston Villa.

Most of Liverpool's goals under Klopp, in contrast to the last few managers, have come in the first half. Liverpool often need to score early to click into gear. Or else.

Not today, Satan.

Because Liverpool responded, without making personnel changes. Liverpool finally put a shot on-target three minutes into the half, Liverpool finally scored nine minutes into the half. As against Arsenal, as against Tottenham (albeit a penalty), as against Chelsea, Liverpool needed a set play goal to break through the wall.

It was all down to the second phase. Coutinho put the free kick into the wall but every attacker took up a clever position as Henderson regrouped, a perfect chip over beating Swansea's broken line, Firmino in acres of space to direct a header past Swansea. Back to even. Time to go.

Between the 46th and 70th minutes, Liverpool took nine shots to Swansea's none, with both Coutinho and Sturridge having excellent opportunities to give Liverpool the lead, both narrowly wide. That Liverpool failed to put the pressure to use annoyed, but it truly seemed a matter of time before the second.

But then things began to ebb, and again, a fair bit of credit goes to Swansea. Guidolin made three changes between the 62nd and 72nd minutes – Barrow for Routledge, Ki for Britton, and Fulton for Fer. Swansea had clearly tired, pressing and pushing in the first half and unable to keep up with Liverpool in the second. But then they were able to keep up. Then they were able to press. For ten minutes, Liverpool were unable to control the game, unable to take a shot, and nearly gave the game away when hassled into a mistake, with Matip necessarily blocking the cross with Liverpool outnumbered in the defensive third, followed by Karius completely missing the corner but Swansea unable to get a player on it.

Still, Liverpool preserved. And Liverpool were rewarded for it, coupled with Swansea defending like Liverpool are prone to. Otherwise known as "cue Yakety Sax." A misplayed clearance by Barrow, Rangel unable to hold off Firmino, then tackling Firmino – not a football tackle but an American football tackle – with Liverpool duly awarded its fourth spot kick so far this season. Which Milner unfailingly converted.

Finally, a marginally undeserved lead, but a lead nonetheless. By hook or by crook, Liverpool on pace to win a match that could have been out of sight after half an hour. Liverpool able to sit back, smother, and counter, Coutinho and Origi missing chances and an almost own goal.

But Liverpool also almost gave it away, in the last minute of the match, under unnecessary pressure, because Liverpool, Rangel's deep cross finding an unmarked van der Hoorn when Karius didn't come, a hesitation and mis-kick thankfully trickling wide.

So yeah, Liverpool weren't good. And I should care, but I don't really care. Because Liverpool won. Because Liverpool did enough in the second half, and Swansea couldn't quite do enough in the first half. Because Liverpool won away at a bottom half side after conceding first for the first time since the aforementioned Palace match last March. Because Liverpool did what they weren't able to do against Burnley, a match we're going to keep mentioning until Liverpool get results more like today's than six weeks ago.

Because we get to look past this and plan for better over the next 16 days (thanks, unnecessary international break!) rather than dwelling on another painful setback. Rather than mad and moaning and complaining and criticizing, we'll see another Liverpool win, three more points, and Liverpool in a very-early-don't-pay-too-much-attention-don't-talk-about-it top four place.

Beat the dross, no matter how, win the league. By hook or by crook, dross beaten. That's all that matters.

30 September 2016

Liverpool at Swansea 10.01.16

7:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Swansea (a) 05.01.15
1-0 Liverpool (h) 11.29.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.15
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.29.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-1 Hull (h); 3-0 Derby (a); 2-1 Chelsea (a)
Swansea: 1-3 City (h); 1-2 City (h); 0-1 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho, Lallana, Mané, Milner 3; Firmino 2; Henderson, Lovren 1
Swansea: Fer 3; Llorente, Sigurðsson 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

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

Guessing Liverpool's line-up has become somewhat simple. Yes, there's competition for places. Yes, there are players who could seemingly slot right in. But, as you may have noticed, Liverpool are playing quite well, and once again, the only question seems whether or not there will be a place for Daniel Sturridge. Well, as long as there are no illnesses or black eyes or controversies about doing stupid things while driving and filming it for the club's website, right Dejan?

It's weird to see Liverpool's "best XI" without a healthy Sturridge. I'm still not entirely convinced that Liverpool wouldn't be better with him starting in these matches away from home against a deep-lying defense; sure, Liverpool did just fine carving open Hull, but that was at Anfield. This is a new season, but I still very much remember the last. That Origi will probably be absent with a minor foot injury also makes it more likely Sturridge left on the bench, potentially needed as a game-changing attacker.

Otherwise, same as. After six games, we know what Klopp's preferred XI looks like and it's humming along nicely.

Meanwhile, Swansea certainly haven't had the best start to the season. They're winless in the last five. They've conceded at least once in every match since opening day. There's already talk of Bob Bradley, of all people, replacing Guidolin. You know, the caretaker manager from last January who was given a permanent deal just a couple of months ago. Maybe that leads to Guidolin and his side bursting out of the gates, fighting to save the manager's job. Or maybe it leads to players not all that bothered and more of the same disappointment. Here's hoping for the latter, obviously.

However, in Swansea's defense, they haven't been truly bad despite said results and league position. Two of those losses were narrow defeats to Leicester and Southampton. They drew against Chelsea, coming back from a deficit to take a 2-1 lead before Costa's late equalizer. Swansea it kept it reasonably close against Manchester City in both recent matches, including equalizing four minutes after City opened the scoring in the league meeting, until conceding twice in the last 25 minutes.

Swansea's line-up also seems fairly safe to predict. Fabianski; Rangel, Amat, van der Hoorn, Naughton; Cork, Britton; Routledge, Fer, Sigurðsson; Llorente. Both Fernandez and Dyer are out through injury; it'll be either van der Hoorn or Kingsley taking up Fernandez's usual role in defense. Swansea started with three at the back against Chelsea, but changed before halftime, prompting the renaissance which earned them a point. Jefferson Montero's an option out wide, Ki's an option in midfield, and both Barrow or Borja are options up front. Borja is Swansea's record signing but has been limited to just two substitute appearances thanks to a thigh issue. If Borja's fit enough to start, 4-4-2 seems a possibility, with Britton the most likely left out.

Liverpool fans being Liverpool fans, I'll still be able to find the clouds behind all these silver linings. And while Hull went a long way towards assuaging concerns about Liverpool's problems against the bottom half, I can't help but remind that was at Anfield rather than away. Away matches remain a concern, as against Burnley this season, as against Watford, Newcastle, etc last season.

And it doesn't help that Liverpool have won at Swansea just once since their promotion in 2011-12 – a narrow 1-0 win in 2014-15 – with two draws and two losses in the other matches. Sure, last season doesn't really count: a much-changed XI with Liverpool focused on the Europa League, including a very raw, very young, and very over-run midfield. That won't be Liverpool tomorrow. But Liverpool second best at the start, Liverpool conceding early, and Liverpool unable to come back, well, those are Liverpools we've seen before.

It's simply the next stop on the "correct the long-standing faults, prove this is a better team, and prove you're top-four and/or title contenders" tour. Do what you've done before (excepting, yes, that one match we keep harping on), and it'll be a successful one.

26 September 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 5-1 Hull

Previous Match Infographics: Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

What can you say about that performance.

Liverpool were unstoppable, irrepressible. Liverpool didn't allow Hull anything close to a foothold from the opening whistle, even before Elmohamady's red card, and barely gave them a glimmer of hope before quickly stomping it back out in the second half. It was everything we could hope for from one of those potential pitfall fixtures.

Conceding just five goals actually flatters Hull. Liverpool had five clear-cut chances and only converted two: Milner's two penalties. At the very least, Coutinho, Matip, and Wijnaldum should have added more.

It's the first time Liverpool have had five clear-cut chances in a league match since 4-1 at Manchester City last season, and the first time at Anfield since the 5-1 win over Arsenal in 2013-14.

Incidentally, Liverpool scored just seven goals in the equivalent six fixtures last season.

We've already seen three league goals from Lallana (reached that total on March 3 last season), Coutinho (reached that total on October 31 last season), and Mané (reached that total on October 25 last season); each of those players has also registered at least one league assist. And that's not even including the two cup ties, where Liverpool have scored another eight goals.

This attack is good. Like, really good. And it's not even October.

Let's take another look at Hull's tackles and interceptions, with Liverpool's touches heatmap from WhoScored as a backdrop.

There seems like there should be more tackles – really, any tackles – in the final third channels, yeah? Where are the tackles?


Hull defenders struggled to get close to Liverpool's attackers. 22 of 29 dribbles successful. Every Liverpool player who attempted a take-on won more than 50% of them. And this has been a major problem in the matches where Liverpool's failed against lesser opposition; compare that to Burnley, where Liverpool completed 16 of 26, with the majority coming slightly deeper and more central. Against Hull, Liverpool necessarily found ways to make space through clever dribbling, clever movement, and clever passing.

But that was just one small part of Liverpool's final third effectiveness. Because Liverpool, with 74% possession, were just as good without the ball.

Gegenpressing. Such a fun word to type.

And it all led to one of Liverpool's most emphatic attacking performances in the last few seasons. Sure, that Hull had only 10 men for an hour exacerbated the disparity, but the stats are still startling.

Liverpool have never held an opponent to just two shots in a league match since I started tracking in 2012-13; the previous low was three, by Everton in the 4-0 win last season and Swansea in a 5-0 win in 2012-13.

Those are also the only two Liverpool matches with a higher shot disparity than Saturday's. Liverpool took 34 more shots than Everton and 32 more shots than Swansea. Liverpool took "just" 30 more shots than Hull on Saturday.

And there have only been five league matches where Liverpool took 30 or more shots during that span: 37 against Everton, 35 against Swansea, and 32 against Fulham (4-0) and West Ham (4-1) in 2013-14 as well as Saturday against Hull. Unsurprisingly, all five came at Anfield.

All four of those previous matches came well into the season, November at the earliest, with the team fully formed and in form.

Liverpool's attack is somehow this good already. And Liverpool's defense ain't bad; sure, conceding from just one shot on-target, against ten men, isn't ideal, but to be slightly fairer, that was the first time Liverpool's conceded from a corner in the last 13 matches, since Sigurðsson's goal in early May. No side's taken more than 12 shots against Liverpool so far this season, while Liverpool hasn't yet taken fewer than 13.

For better and for worse, we're not even a fifth of the way through the campaign. Keep this up in attack and continue to improve in defense, and Liverpool might actually be even better than we dared hope.

24 September 2016

Liverpool 5-1 Hull City

Lallana 17'
Milner 30' (pen) 71' (pen)
Mané 36'
Meyler 51'
Coutinho 52'

Maybe, just maybe, we slightly overreacted to the Burnley loss.

What Liverpool did against better sides, what Liverpool did against more open sides, Liverpool did just to Hull. Even more emphatically. Hull, who've been a bête noire for the last few seasons when they were in the Premier League. Hull, who had conceded more than once in just one of this season's seven matches. Hull, who Liverpool hadn't scored an open play goal against since September 2009, six meetings ago.

Liverpool did exactly what Liverpool needed to. Liverpool started as Liverpool meant to continue. Liverpool swarmed, Liverpool counter-pressed, Liverpool attacked attacked attacked.

A clear-cut chance cleared off the line within ten minutes, then the first goal within 17: Coutinho's lovely balance and turn inside, charging towards the box, passing to Lallana rather than shooting, the move finished with a clever touch, immaculate sense of space, and a left-footed effort into the far corner. Then, Elmohamady sent off for a goal-line handball and a penalty scored within half an hour. Then, the third six minutes later, more quick passes and Liverpool attackers popping up all over the final third, Lallana's Cruyff turn into space to set up Mané at the top of the box, spin, placed, goal.

Liverpool were at their fluid best in attack, with exceptionally brilliant interplay and movement from all involved. Liverpool created room to attack through charging down Hull defenders when they happened to pick up possession, through the front five's constant shifting, through clever dribbling and even cleverer passing. Liverpool had all of the possession, all of the territory, and Hull had zero shots.

Of course, then the second half happened. Well, the first six minutes. A Hull corner from nothing, when Milner misplayed his headed clearance, led to Hull's first shot and Hull's lone goal. Because of course Liverpool were going to concede. Because of course Karius concedes from the first shot on-target he faces. The more things change, etc. Goalkeepers are cursed, set plays are cursed.

Liverpool will never keep a clean sheet in the league. But that won't be much of a problem if Liverpool keep scoring as they have.

As Liverpool demonstrated less than a minute after Hull's goal. There was no knock-back. There was no tilt and regroup. There was no whispered breath of the most unlikely of comebacks. There was Coutinho, and Coutinho's boot stamping on Hull's face – forever. 54 seconds after Meyler's consolation, without Hull ever coming close to touching the ball, a trademark unstoppable missile from distance. Kickoff, Wijnaldum, Mané, Lallana, Coutinho, pick that one out.

Don't get any ideas, Hull. Ever. And tell your friends.

And, really, that was pretty much it. Wijnaldum probably should have scored a clear-cut chance a few minutes later. Sturridge won a penalty two minutes after coming on. Hull impressively doubled their shot total with Snodgrass' deep free kick nowhere close. Hull played for damage limitation and got it. 5-1 was actually damage limitation.

So, a goal and two assists for Adam Lallana. A goal, an assist, and a penalty won by Coutinho. Mané's third goal of the season in his fifth league match. Two carbon copy penalties scored by Milner, that second won by Sturridge. It ain't often Firmino isn't involved at least one of Liverpool's goals, but once again, he is the foundation of Liverpool's press and the most mobile of Liverpool's non-stop runners.

Yes, yes, set play goal conceded, first shot on-target conceded. Yes, yes, Liverpool against these types of sides has been more worrisome away from Anfield rather than at it. But Liverpool were quite good and that was quite fun. Let's not spoil it.

Liverpool are fun again. And we've got 32 more league matches of this. Enjoy the ride.