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.

23 September 2016

Liverpool v Hull 09.24.16

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Hull (a) 04.28.15
0-0 (h) 10.25.14
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.14
1-3 Hull (a) 12.01.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Derby (a); 2-1 Chelsea (a); 4-1 Leicester (h)
Hull: 2-1 Stoke (a); 1-4 Arsenal (h); 1-1 Burnley (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Mané 2; Henderson, Lovren, Milner 1
Hull: Snodgrass 3; Diomande, Hernandez, Maloney 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

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

At Arsenal on opening day? Cake. Away to both Tottenham and Chelsea? Not a worry. Inaugurating a renovated Anfield against the defending league champions? Yawn.

A "routine" home match against a bottom-half, promoted side? EVERYBODY FREAK OUT!

And rightfully so. I'll continue to harp on it, unfairly or not, until Liverpool settles everyone's nerves. These are the matches where Liverpool have had a greater tendency towards failure, at least compared to what Liverpool's objectives should be. These are the matches where Liverpool have let us, and themselves, down.

Liverpool control possession and tempo. Liverpool dominate the shot count, albeit with far too many from outside the box. Liverpool become frustrated, Liverpool take even more low-percentage shots, and at some time, Liverpool make a mistake, or fail on a set play, or get beat on the counter, and Liverpool lose or draw a match we expected them to win.

To be slightly fairer, the worst examples have come away from Anfield: Newcastle, Watford, West Ham last season; Burnley (sigh) this season. The bigger problem at home has been letting sides back into the match: 1-1 v Southampton, 2-2 v Sunderland, 2-2 v Newcastle. Not only do Liverpool have to score, not only will it help if Liverpool score early, Liverpool need to stand on necks and then not let go.

So, are Liverpool more likely to do that with Sturridge or with Coutinho? I still think that's the line-up debate. Despite Coutinho's goal and assist (well, assist and a half) on Tuesday, his two goals and assist in the league, I can't help but suspect that Liverpool's best attack against deep-lying, often passive defenses is Firmino-Sturridge-Mané, as we saw against Leicester. Sure, that's a small sample size, but we've got a larger one with Coutinho blasting away from distance against that type of defense for little reward. Firmino, Sturridge, and Mané's movement simply amazed in the last match at Anfield, while I still worry about the Firmino-Coutinho-Mané front three against deeper defenses. Maybe it's recency bias, but that seems to work better in the "big games": the Arsenals, the Tottenhams.

But Sturridge is more likely to change the game off the bench if it comes to that. And Sturridge didn't train for three days this week, following a minor concern from the Chelsea contest. And we only saw the aforementioned front three v Leicester because of Coutinho's post-internationals fatigue; he's rarely if ever left out when fully fit. Even though I don't necessarily like it, and probably wouldn't pick it, I suspect this will be the front three.

Either way, this match will go a long way in confirming or refuting one of our long-held beliefs.

The only other line-up question seems to be Karius or Mignolet; the rest of the XI writes itself. We want to see Karius. But Mignolet's been – shock horror – surprisingly adequate since Karius returned from injury, seemingly pushed by the competition. Of course, that's two matches compared to the three seasons which came before. Maybe Hull at home is a good start for Liverpool's new signing, not likely to be too troubled, but one mistake, costly or not, could set Karius back a long way. Still, you bought him. He's fit. Let's see him.

Hull, albeit under different managers for both sides, have been a problem for Liverpool in recent seasons. Four matches following their previous promotion: one Liverpool win, one draw, and two losses. Thankfully, this is a very different Liverpool team, but that doesn't mean we're convinced it'll be a different result.

And despite the different managers, Liverpool's often-mentioned struggles against a deep defense were on show in each of those meetings. Hull scored three in the first meeting of 2013-14: from a giveaway in Liverpool's half, from a set play that Liverpool failed to clear, and from a counter-attack. All three are too-familiar concessions. Their winner in 2014-15 came from well-worked corner kick. Liverpool tried and tried and failed to score in both meetings in 2014-15, but, to be fair, Liverpool failed to score in more than a few matches that season. The lone win against Hull came thanks to two set play goals: Agger's header and Suarez's direct free kick. As did Liverpool's one other goal: Gerrard's direct free kick consolation in December 2013.

The last time Liverpool scored from open play against Hull was six meetings ago, seven years ago, in a 6-1 win at Anfield: a Torres hat-trick and Babel brace, Liverpool biggest victory in a season that saw Rafa Benitez sacked.

Incidentally, three of Hull's six league goals so far this season have come from set plays – a corners against Leicester and Swansea, and Snodgrass' direct free kick against Burnley – along with one penalty.

And while Hull have kept just one clean sheet – one more than Liverpool – they've allowed just one goal in three of the other four matches, against Leicester, United, and Burnley, the same amount they've allowed in the two cup ties against Exeter and Stoke.

The exception was Arsenal's 4-1 home win, the template for what Liverpool need to do: early pressure leading to Alexis Sanchez's 17th minute goal, forcing Hull to come out bit by bit, eventually adding three more (plus a missed penalty). Of course, it helps when Hull have a player sent off in the 40th minute. Liverpool should try that too.

Hull remained cagey, Hull fought for every loose ball, and Hull won a penalty to get it to 1-2 before Arsenal's class won out. Arsenal didn't get too frustrated, Arsenal kept ticking over, and Arsenal finally saw the match out after Hull added a bit of impetus; even if Arsenal bent, they made sure not to break. And that's exactly what Liverpool will need to do.

The same XI has started each of Hull's league games so far: Jakupovic; Elmohamady, Livermore, Davies, Robertson; Clucas, Huddlestone, Meyler; Snodgrass, Hernandez, Diomande.

But I wouldn't be surprised to see three players who did well against Stoke in Wednesday's League Cup win: Ryan Mason, Hull's record signing, in midfield rather than Meyler; ex-Cardiff keeper David Marshall in goals and winger Markus Hendriksen, who scored the 90th-minute winner, in place of Diomande. The six (!!!) players signed on deadline day to fill out a scarily sparse squad have seemingly had time to gel with their new teammates. Hull are still missing center-backs Michael Dawson and Alex Bruce, right-back Moses Odubajo, and keeper Allan McGregor.

It's no surprise that Klopp heavily emphasized 'patience' in his pre-match quotes. Liverpool can struggle in matches like this when it takes time to score. Liverpool become frustrated far too easily, and it can be exacerbated by the crowd.

So far, one game excluded, this has been a fairly different and fairly fun Liverpool side this season. Liverpool needs to play its game, in attack and in defense, from the first to the 90th minute. The rest will follow.

19 September 2016

Liverpool at Derby 09.20.16

2:45pm ET, not live on TV in the US. It's available on BeIN Sports Connect if you have access to that streaming service, maybe also LFCTV GO if you're a subscriber (it's unclear on that front but I wouldn't hold my breath), otherwise streams. I'm not even seeing any delayed showings on US TV.

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 12.26.07
6-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.07
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.20.02
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.01.01

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Chelsea (a); 4-1 Leicester (h); 1-1 Tottenham (a)
Derby: 1-1 Bristol City (a); 0-1 Ipswich (h); 0-2 Newcastle (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 5-0 Burton Albion (a)
Derby: 1-1 Carlisle aet [14-13 pens] (h); 1-0 Grimsby (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Firmino 3; Coutinho, Lallana, Mané, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Lovren, Milner, Origi 1
Derby: Anya, Bent, Forsyth, Keogh 1

Referee: Graham Scott

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Moreno
Henderson Can Grujic
Mané Origi Firmino

As much as we'd like to see some changes, a rare start for players we've not seen enough of this season, tomorrow's XI will probably be much the same as the ones which have come before. Liverpool played a strong XI in the last round at Burton, and Liverpool will almost certainly play a strong XI tomorrow at Derby.

The League Cup was important for Liverpool last season, the first sustained statement of intent under Klopp by reaching the final, only to lose on penalties. I assume it will continue to be so, especially without European competition this season.

There will, of course, be a couple of alterations. This seems the perfect time for Loris Karius' debut, healthy after a broken hand, having been on the bench for the last two matches. Hopefully Emre Can's available as well, but even if not, Liverpool have another possibility in Kevin Stewart. Origi will probably start up front, as he did in the last round. Maybe Moreno's released from his cage? And that's probably about it.

I'm guessing the most change comes in midfield. Lallana's run miles upon miles so far this season, while Wijnaldum's not far behind, looking completely spent by the end of Saturday's match. Maybe Henderson joins them as well; Liverpool do have three potential replacements in Can, Stewart, and/or Grujic.

But otherwise, expect to see Firmino back, expect to see Mané keep his place, expect to see a fairly similar back four considering Matip and Lovren need games together and there really isn't much in the way of a replacement for Clyne. Expect Liverpool to pretty much be Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Derby County have scored just two league goals in eight Championship games. Yeah. Two. And two in the two League Cup matches. Liverpool scored more goals in the previous round than Derby has all season. And, having watched Liverpool for multiple years, I can't decide whether that's a good or bad thing. Derby hadn't scored in a league match since August 16th until Ikechi Anya gave them a 1-0 lead just before halftime on Saturday, on pace to win in 90 minutes for the first time in a month. And then they went and screwed it up by conceding an injury-time equalizer. Poor Derby.

But, to be fair and despite that injury time equalizer, they aren't allowing many goals either, having given up two goals in a match just twice: at Barnsley and against Newcastle. They've kept four clean sheets in all competitions, which is three more than Liverpool have.

There are familiar faces in the Derby squad. Former Liverpool players Scott Carson and Tom Ince. Former Liverpool target Will Hughes. James Wilson, on loan from Manchester United. Players who have caused Liverpool trouble in the past: Andreas Weimann (recently back from injury), while at Aston Villa; Bradley Johnson, while at Norwich; and Darren Bent, while at around half the clubs in the country.

Unsurprisingly, having seen little of Derby this season, my best guess at an XI is similar to that which they've used in the last two matches. But there will have to at least a couple of changes with both Vydra and Anya cup-tied. So, let's guess Carson; Christie, Keogh, Pearce, Olsson; Butterfield, Hughes, Bryson, Ince; Bent, Wilson. Maybe Johnson, who hasn't played in a month, comes into midfield. It'll be either Weimann or Bent up front, and maybe both if James Wilson continues to struggle with a minor injury.

Regardless, Derby will probably play 4-4-2, Derby will probably look to counter, Derby will probably defend in two resolute bands of four. And it'll be up to Liverpool to break them down. It's been slowly getting better, but there have been bumps (specifically, bumps named Burnley), and we're still not convinced Liverpool can consistently break defensive sides down.

Despite Derby's record, it'll be a good test of the side. Liverpool needing to break down an unfancied team that's fairly stingy in defense, Derby with absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.

It's another chance to prove Liverpool are getting cleverer in these kind of matches. It's another chance to continue to coalesce as a side. And it's another chance to do well in a competition Liverpool clearly want to do well it.

17 September 2016

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Chelsea

Previous Match Infographics: 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.)

That was a lot more narrow than Liverpool fans may want to remember or acknowledge.

Antonio Conte's sides aren't supposed to have complete and utter breakdowns when defending set plays, a manager often known for his defensive organization. But there Liverpool were, with three men unguarded at the back post after a short free kick. The only defender to have been in the area – Gary Cahill – somehow left it, either following an already-marked Matip or bafflingly returning to his position while the move's still going. Liverpool's movement was clever: Lovren delayed his run, Sturridge waited until the last second to return from an offside position, Mané drifted into the area upon seeing the overload. But those breakdowns shouldn't happen. Even Liverpool, who we've often excoriated for set-play defense, rarely make fall apart in such a manner.

Jürgen Klopp's sides aren't supposed to allow 16-pass goals where every outfield player touches the ball at least once. Where Liverpool attempt to press the opposition in its own half, but the opposition neatly plays around them, then are beaten all ends up when trying to press in the middle third, with Matic breaking past Lallana, untracked by both Henderson and Lallana, beating a slid-in-too-soon Matip before picking out Costa. Liverpool's defensive organization had been quite good to that point – quickly recovering after losing possession, quickly getting men behind the ball when needed, getting into position, forcing Chelsea to play wide and a subsequent struggle to get into the box – but one failed press and Liverpool are diced through the middle. One opportunity swiftly taken; mistakes from Lallana, Henderson, and Matip swiftly punished.

Liverpool's previous league goals conceded? Two passes (Arsenal), four passes (Arsenal), one pass (Arsenal), two passes (Burnley), one pass (Burnley), 11 passes (Tottenham), zero passes (Leicester).

Honors even in the "first goal conceded is an out-of-character goal conceded" challenge. So the match was settled by a galaxy-class strike by Jordan Henderson. As wonderful as it was and forever will be (here, let's watch it again), that ain't happening often.

Liverpool should have won its last trip to London, unlucky to not score more than once against Tottenham, a 1-1 draw not entirely fair on balance of play. Liverpool easily could have seen this match finish level, just as five of the previous ten meetings finished. Maybe this season it'll actually all even out in the end. It's also hard to complain about getting a result, moderately deserved or marginally deserved or not, when you've won just once against your opponent in the previous ten meetings. Klopp's now done it twice in a row at Stamford Bridge after Liverpool's previous manager failed in all eight attempts at either ground.

Credit where due. Liverpool made us nervous, because Liverpool either can't or won't go through a single match without making us nervous, but Liverpool were also very good after conceding. Chelsea took just two shots in the ~35 minutes after scoring: Diego Costa saved in the 65th minute, Fabregas's free kick into the wall in the 89th. That's it. At home, dominating possession, down by a goal, and unbeaten in five matches.

Chelsea, allowed just 12 shots all match. Chelsea, who took 16 and 22 shots in their two previous home matches. That's their second-lowest home total since being held to eight by Liverpool last season.

And credit where due. Just like last Saturday, Simon Mignolet made a massive save with the score at 2-1, this time denying Diego Costa from 15 yards. It wasn't a clear-cut chance, as Jamie Vardy's was. It was, fortunately, hit almost directly at him. But he stopped it, a threatening shot from one of the league's best strikers, and Liverpool stayed ahead, and Liverpool didn't allow an open play shot for the rest of the match.

For some reason, a lot of y'all act like Liverpool have never been here before. Which, to be fair, is almost accurate. Everyone remembers the multiple 1-0 and 2-0 leads lost. But it's not as if Liverpool are never able to lock the door after conceding. The best example is the 1-1 draw at Borussia Dortmund last season, where Liverpool held Dortmund without a shot for the final 30 minutes to keep the crucial away goal advantage. But we've also got last month at Arsenal, where Arsenal took zero shots in the last 15 minutes after getting back to 4-3. We've got 1-1 at Tottenham, with just two opposition shots, both off-target, after Rose's equalizer.

Clearly, it doesn't happen often enough. And Liverpool conceded at least once in all four of the above examples. Liverpool are yet to keep a clean sheet in the league this season, Liverpool have kept just three clean sheets in the league since March, all at Anfield: 3-0 v City, 4-0 v Everton, and 2-0 v Watford.

But Liverpool do have the capacity to close down games and Liverpool are slowly (very slowly, especially compared with Liverpool's improvement in attack) getting better at closing out games.

As with everything good we've seen so far this short season, Liverpool just need to do it more often.

15 September 2016

Liverpool at Chelsea 09.16.16

3:00pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 05.11.16
3-1 Liverpool (a) 10.31.15
1-1 (a) 05.10.15
0-1 Chelsea (a; League Cup) 01.27.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Leicester (h); 1-1 Tottenham (a); 5-0 Burton Albion (a)
Chelsea: 2-2 Swansea (a); 3-0 Burnley (h); 3-2 Bristol Rovers (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana, Mané 2; Milner 1
Chelsea: Costa 4; Hazard 2; Batshuayi, Moses, Willian 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

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

Liverpool's relaxing start to the season continues apace. This will be the third trip to London, against yet another of the league's best sides, in addition to the home win over last season's champions and one more match that shall not be mentioned. And we're barely more than a month in. Easing them into the campaign.

With Lovren available and Emre Can back in training but not fit to start, there seems only one line-up question: Coutinho or Sturridge? Liverpool's seemingly preferred counter-attacking formula, with Firmino as the central striker, or the sheer force of nature we saw last Saturday?

It may be worth mentioning that last season's trip to Stamford Bridge saw the first time Firmino lined up as a false nine under Klopp, with Liverpool finishing 3-1 winners. It was the first sign of Liverpool as a counter-attacking power, one which has dramatically improved over the last 11 months. It was Liverpool's only win against Chelsea in the last 10 meetings, since the start of Brendan Rodgers' tenure, with five draws and four losses in the other league and cup meetings.

But that was a different Liverpool – one which didn't actually win the match until Benteke came on – against a very, very different Chelsea. It was a Liverpool side that didn't look anywhere near as savage as they did last Saturday.

That Coutinho came on against Leicester and immediately blasted two nothing shots from nowhere which were swiftly blocked doesn't seem to help his case. But then you remember what he did, what that front three did, at Arsenal on opening day. You remember how that's the front three which had been preferred until last Saturday, when international excursions kept Coutinho on the bench, and has been especially preferred when Liverpool necessarily play an even more counter-attacking style. You remember that Sturridge is much more likely to make an impact off the bench than Coutinho is.

But then you remember how well Sturridge, Mané, and Firmino linked up against Leicester.

So the short answer is "I've no clue." I'm well aware how helpful this is. That's what's I'm here for. The other eight places pick themselves, except for a possible debate over whether Karius should come in for Mignolet now that he's fit. That'll eventually happen, but Stamford Bridge isn't where I'd want to make my first start and Mignolet was actually surprisingly competent against Leicester last week.

Meanwhile, Chelsea have been about as impressive as an attacking force. They haven't hit Liverpool's heights – those 20-30 minute spells against Arsenal and Leicester – but they've been more consistent. They've the same number of goals scored as Liverpool, and they've scored at least twice in all five matches. Diego Costa has been 1000% Diego Costa, already the league's joint-top scorer and somehow staying on the pitch in each match despite the perpetual possibility of a red card. Eden Hazard's back after not playing at all last season (that wasn't Eden Hazard; the real Eden Hazard went on a gap year and nothing will convince me otherwise).

But, also like Liverpool, there's room for the opposition. Chelsea have kept just one clean sheet in those five matches. Against the only side that Liverpool have lost to, the only side that Liverpool failed to score against. It's a funny game, this.

And Chelsea's defense won't be helped by its one absentee: John Terry out for a week after suffering an ankle injury at Swansea. Enter David Luiz, for both better and worse, for both Chelsea and Liverpool. Capable of the sublime and insane in a matter of seconds. Otherwise, Chelsea's XI is even easier to predict than Liverpool's. It's been the same in nearly every match: Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta; Oscar, Kante, Matic; Willian, Costa, Hazard. Fabregas, Batshuayi, Moses, and Pedro will be the options off the bench.

And, despite all the knowledgable pundits' very informed predictions, we haven't seen a single hint of Conte's "preferred" 3-5-2. Chelsea's formation is Liverpool's formation: a malleable, fluid 4-3-3; solid but not especially creative or quick fullbacks, a deeper midfielder behind two linking runners, two versatile, dribbling "wingers" flanking a central striker. And that central striker is in blistering, maddening form.

That these sides met less than two months ago still makes me angry. Yes, yes, you can't learn much from preseason, but that preseason match went how we fear tomorrow could go. Neither side especially impressive, especially in attack, cancelling each other out. Incredibly contentious and ill-played, with five yellow cards for Liverpool and a yellow and red for Chelsea. And a Liverpool loss thanks to a set play header. It's a script we'd seen before. Both sides will be stronger and more fully formed than they were in July on a hot California night, but that was still a match and a result that seems eminently possible.

Whether it's Mané-Firmino-Coutinho (which, incidentally, was also Liverpool's attack in that "friendly") or Mané-Sturridge-Firmino, it'll be up to Liverpool to make sure tomorrow's match goes differently, by playing Liverpool's style of football. Don't do anything dumb at the back, then blitz them at the other end.

It's a simple game, this.