18 September 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-1 Burnley

Previous Match Infographics: Sevilla (h), Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app.



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

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong...



35 shots is a lot of shots. Like, "happened only six times in the last six and-a-little-more seasons" lot. 35 shots is a shot every two minutes and 35 seconds. For 90 minutes on Saturday, Liverpool took aim at Burnley's goal once every 155 seconds. And Liverpool usually missed.

Sure, three of the above games were Luis Suarez-driven. One was a red card-inspired whooping handed out in one of the most lopsided Merseyside Derbies in most of our lifetimes. And the other happened against a beat-from-the-beginning Hull City when Liverpool were entirely on-fire a year ago.

But Liverpool also managed to score at least four goals in all of them, despite a similar number of shots on-target. Somehow, Liverpool only scored one goal on Saturday.

I ain't blaming just one person – albeit one who took a fifth of those shots – but this wasn't quite welcome back, Phil.



But Sturridge's shot map wasn't much better, but Can's shot map wasn't much better. Salah's was, but still not what we're becoming used to from him. And Firmino's shot map was almost nonexistent.

I ain't blaming just two people, but this wasn't the match where Firmino and Sturridge finally proved they could play together either.



Three wins, three draws, and three losses. Against that opposition. Yikes.

Their individual stats over that series of matches aren't actually bad. Each have taken about as many shots and played about as many key passes as usual, each have surpassed their usual shot accuracy. But Firmino has just two goals – both against Leicester – and one assist. Sturridge has scored once and assisted once. In nine matches. Where – if they all counted for points – Liverpool would have averaged just 1.33 points per game.

This wasn't a problem in 2015-16 under Klopp. Those two started 12 matches together. Liverpool won six, drew five, and lost just one. Sturridge scored seven, Firmino scored two and assisted two. But Liverpool also played 4-2-3-1, with Sturridge up top and Firmino lurking behind and around.

Since the start of last season, Liverpool have tried to shoe horn Firmino and Sturridge into the now-preferred 4-3-3, with either Firmino on the left or Sturridge on the right. And it has not worked. Only the 3-0 win against Boro on the last day of last season saw a change in formation, the 4-4-2 diamond where Liverpool needed a riotous win and got a riotous win.

Liverpool really should have gotten more rewards from their attack in both of their last two matches.



And Liverpool should not have conceded three times from what the opposition's attack did in the last two matches.

Liverpool have now conceded from the opposition's first shot on-target against Watford, Hoffenheim (h), Sevilla, and Burnley. Which is half of the matches so far this season, and four of the six where Liverpool have conceded at all. This annoyance has returned with a vengeance.

It's the same pattern which has frustrated us over the last two seasons. The opposition gets a preventable goal – sometimes early, sometimes late – while Liverpool's attack can't do enough to overcome the at-least-once-a-match lapse at the back.

This time, one long ball – delivered with Burnley not pressed in their own half – one lost aerial duel, one Klavan Kalamity™, and Liverpool are behind. Liverpool immediately get one back through a very well worked move of their own – the type of speed and movement from Salah we knew was so necessary in breaking down opposition like this – but no more. Burnley could have gotten a winner – Mee cleared off the line by Matip then denied by Mignolet, both from corners; Liverpool could have gotten one more – Salah's penalty shout ignored before Solanke poked a clear-cut chance off the crossbar.

So, yes, there's a bit of bad luck about the result. Ignored penalty shouts, woodwork. That many shots probably would have led to far more than one goal on most other days. So, yes, it's not as if this is the first time Burnley have done similar to good opponents, having already beaten Chelsea and drawn Tottenham away, not to mention the two matches against this side last season. This looked a lot like Liverpool's early-season match at Burnley in 2016-17, except at least Liverpool are coming away with a point rather than none.

But that it's the same pattern which has frustrated us over the last two seasons, coming after a week where Liverpool were annihilated by Manchester City and had similar happen against Sevilla, makes it that much harder to stomach.

15 September 2017

Liverpool v Burnley 09.16.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Gold

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.12.17
0-2 Burnley (a) 08.20.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 03.04.15
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.26.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Sevilla (h); 0-5 City (a); 4-0 Arsenal (h)
Burnley: 1-0 Palace (h); 1-1 Tottenham (a); 2-0 Blackburn (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 3; Firmino, Salah 2; Sturridge 1
Burnley: Vokes, Wood 2; Ward 1

Referee: Roger East (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Mignolet
Trent A-A Matip Lovren Robertson
Alex O-C Henderson Wijnaldum
Salah Firmino Coutinho

As against Crystal Palace two weeks ago, there will be rotation. Probably at least five changes, with one enforced – the first of three matches where Sadio Mané's suspended.

Mignolet for Karius is certain. Coutinho's first start of the season, whether in the front three or midfield, probably is as well. Alexander-Arnold for Gomez, Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield, and Robertson at left-back also seem likely. But maybe also Klavan for Lovren, Sturridge for Firmino? Maybe Henderson's left out for the first time this season, with Can as the deepest midfielder. Maybe Coutinho in midfield, Firmino on the left, and Sturridge up top?

We could even see a formation change. 4-4-2, whether with a midfield diamond or not, Firmino and Sturridge or Firmino and Salah or Salah and Sturridge. 4-2-3-1, with Firmino or Coutinho lurking as the #10. Or three-at-the-back, which was the switch made when reduced to ten men at Manchester City, for all the good that did.

Liverpool do have more options than last season. It's still early, and we're still not entirely sure how Klopp's going to handle somewhere between 10 and 15 more matches this season than last.

Burnley, level on points with Liverpool after four games, is in terrifying form. But it's not as if they're smashing all comers. Their loss came at home against West Brom, who were just smashed by Brighton, of all sides. And Burnley have failed to score more than once in a league match since opening day.

But it's how they've played in two of those four matches. The 3-2 win at Chelsea on opening day, the surprise of the round which thankfully led to less focus on Liverpool's awfulness at Watford, and a 1-1 draw with Tottenham two weeks ago thanks to a 90th-minute equalizer.

Their two toughest matches, the only two away from home, both against top-four sides. A stunning win and a punishing-for-their-opponents draw. Yikes.

Burnley will most likely stick with Dyche's preferred 4-4-2 formation, that which gave Liverpool problems in both meetings last season, but it is worth nothing he switched to 4-5-1 at both Chelsea and Tottenham. Still, the most likely XI remains Pope; Lowton, Tarkowski, Mee, Ward; Gudmundsson, Cork, Defour, Mee; Vokes, Wood.

I had almost forgotten that Jon Walters, often Liverpool's bane, joined Burnley this summer. Ashley Barnes, who scored Burnley's seventh-minute opener in this fixture last season, is still around as well. Midfielder Jeff Hendrick, a starter prior to injury, is back in training. First-choice keeper Tom Heaton will be out for a few months, and back-up Nick Pope will make his first Premier League start after coming on a sub last week, but that only heightens my expectations for opposition keeper heroics. Record signing Chris Wood's in hot form with two goals in two games, his first two appearances for the club.

These matches are never easy and rarely fun. Burnley love aerial duels, set plays, and frustrating Liverpool. Liverpool seemingly love frustrating us. This was a tricky fixture last season, these are often tricky fixtures, and Liverpool have struggled for consistency, to put it nicely, so far this season. Arsenal and Hoffenheim were great, City was not, Palace was fine, and there was both good and bad against Watford and Sevilla.

Liverpool's attack – even without Sadio Mané, so often the lynchpin – is better than last season's, and should be better than against this opposition last season. But Liverpool's defense will remain terrifying, especially in matches like these, until consistently proving otherwise.

14 September 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Sevilla

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (a), Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored and Liverpool FC



There's only so much you can say when similar things keep happening again and again and again and again.

Once again, a defensive error that should never have happened proves costly.




Once again, Liverpool drop points from a winning position thanks to a second half concession.




Once again, Liverpool's opponent scores from every single shot on-target.




Liverpool players – especially goalkeepers and center-backs – commit errors at way too high a pace. Liverpool let opposition sides back into games way too frequently. Liverpool don't allow many shots, but Liverpool allow really, really good shots.

This often happens in matches that Liverpool "should" win. They're often matches that Liverpool should have won on balance of play. It continues to happen at about the same rate since Jürgen Klopp became manager.

This time, Liverpool – read: Dejan Lovren – committed an early error which set an awful tone. As against Palace and Watford in 2015-16; Burnley, Southampton (League Cup), Hull, and Leicester in 2016-16.

This time, Liverpool let a lead slip late – the midfielders slow to react to a quick throw-in, Lovren and Moreno caught ball-watching, although give Correa credit where due for the control and finish. Liverpool did similar against Southampton, West Brom, Sunderland, Southampton, Tottenham, and Newcastle in 2015-16; Tottenham, Bournemouth, Sunderland, United, and Bournemouth in 2016-17, and Watford already this season.

Yes, credit where due. That second goal was quite clever, if aided by Liverpool. Sevilla improved as the match went on. Sevilla's changes improved the side. Sevilla finished the stronger side. That shouldn't have mattered after that first half performance.

Liverpool's attack remains very good. Better than last season. Vastly so. But, too often, Liverpool need that attack to take almost every single chance in order to get past these issues we've seen again and again and again and again. Do that, and we get 4-0 Arsenal. Don't do that, and don't turn that first half dominance into at least three goals, and miss a penalty just before halftime, and here we are.

Again.

Visualized: Liverpool 0-5 Manchester City

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (h), Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored.



(Here are the formation diagrams usually included in match reviews: At the start; After all subs.)

I think I can be excused for a few days tardiness because of a hurricane. And, to be fair, there's not a whole lot to say about this anyway, whether said on Sunday or Thursday. We're here almost solely for thoroughness and completeness' sake.

That was an emphatic a whooping as can be. That's not good. Liverpool were second-best, if not by much, for the first 35 minutes, then not even fourth-best after the sending off.

And it was almost as meaningless as a whooping can be.

Well, "meaningless" isn't necessarily the best word for this. That Liverpool rolled over so easily in the second half isn't meaningless. That Liverpool's tactical switch in the second half – shifting to something like a 3-5-1 – completely failed to stem any more damage isn't meaningless. That Liverpool's midfield was so easily passed around and around and around until passed through when down to ten men isn't meaningless; just look at the chalkboards for all four of City's man-advantage goals, especially the second and fourth. This is not a good side when it's not a pressing side, especially in the middle of the pitch, and Manchester City is exactly the type who can and will make them pay for it.

And that Liverpool were already losing 0-1 when Sadio Mané was sent off isn't meaningless.

But once Mané was sent off – and I ain't arguing with the red card; it may have been accidental but it was also all sorts of dangerous play – and especially once Jesus got City's second just before halftime, this match was completely over as a contest. Whether it finished 0-2 or 0-5 only really matters towards goal difference.

To be fair, a Pep Guardiola team is the last team you want to face with a man disadvantage. But that was still all sorts of unacceptable, Liverpool.

13 September 2017

Liverpool 2-2 Sevilla

Goals:
Ben Yedder 5'
Firmino 21'
Salah 37'
Correa 72'

At least it went better than the last time Liverpool faced Sevilla?

But, look, we've been here before. The match started in the worst possible manner and the match ended in a not great manner. In between, especially the first half and very much especially in attack, was competent if not excellent.

But Liverpool did dumb things in defense, and paid for it. Liverpool failed to take enough chances to make up for doing dumb things in defense – a missed penalty in the 42nd minute the most galling – and paid for it.

An Anfield roaring for the return of the Champions League proper should have been the catalyst to blow the doors off Sevilla, as it was against Hoffenheim. And it almost was, it might have been. Liverpool pushed, Can and Henderson tried their luck from distance almost immediately. But one Sevilla attack: Sevilla's first attack, Sevilla's only real attack of the half. One low cross into a dangerous position, but a low cross that should have been easily cleared. One kick through nothing but air from Dejan Lovren. And one goal for Liverpool's opponents from a defensive error. One goal conceded from one shot on-target.

But Liverpool responded. Anfield didn't stop, and that attack didn't stop. Mané and Salah again gave their markers nothing but nightmares. Liverpool's midfield took turns pressing feverishly, giving Sevilla little outlet or time to breathe. Firmino everywhere, overloads everywhere. Liverpool kept coming until Liverpool equalized: pressure and possession finished off by Moreno to Henderson to Moreno, a low cross for Firmino's tap-in, Wijnaldum waiting at the back post if the striker didn't get there.

And Liverpool didn't stop. Can shot narrowly wide after a wonderful, wonderful break. Mercado saw yellow in frustration, again turned inside out by a Liverpool attacker. Liverpool kept pressing and kept breaking, and in the 37th minute, Salah won possession fairly despite protests, looked up, and immediately shot at goal, a lucky deflection taking it over Sergio Rico. You get what you deserve.

And Liverpool arguably deserved even more. Four minutes later, Mané beat Correa all ends up to win a penalty. He could have had two: Correa both handled the ball and pulled Mané back. Liverpool needed two, because Firmino sent his spot kick off the post. Subsequent dangerous crosses from Moreno and Wijnaldum nearly but couldn't quite lead to anything. And yet another full tilt break just before the whistle saw Rico barely keep Moreno's effort out.

But the second half was a different story. Liverpool remained on top, but less so, increasingly less so. Less quick to press, less vicious both on and off the ball. Fewer chances, more speculative chances. Deep curlers from Salah and Mané wide, Firmino from distance wide, Wijnaldum from distance saved.

Sevilla knew they were close to getting away with it. One side grew in stature and the other proportionally diminished. Liverpool at least looked secure? Silly rabbit. Liverpool aren't ever secure.

And in the 72nd minute, Liverpool were finally punished. Henderson and Can were out of position on Sevilla's throw-in and Muriel, who'd been on the pitch less than three minutes, was able to run at the heart of Liverpool's defense. Lovren froze, Correa sprinted behind Moreno, somehow controlled the pass, and beat Karius maybe just a little bit too easily. Again, you get what you deserve, in both attack and defense.

22 Liverpool shots at that point. Six on-target, two goals. That's not bad. Three Sevilla shots. Two on-target, two goals. That's very bad. The one non-goal Sevilla shot? From distance, easily blocked, late in the first half. The other two were clear-cut chances. The other two were goals. Easy goals, avoidable goals. This is not the first time this has happened.

Unlike after conceding early, Liverpool dropped. Liverpool diminished, at an even quicker pace. Probably tired from the earlier exertions. Losing shape and style after substitutions, with Coutinho replacing Can, Sturridge replacing Mané, and Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Salah. There was little reply. There were just two Liverpool shots: both headers, both from corners, neither threatening.

And Sevilla could have won it late: Muriel again somehow through on goal in added time, shooting wide after being fouled by Gomez, advantage played and the defender sent off for a second yellow. Honestly, I'll take the dismissal rather than the loss.

Literally only two good things happened in the second half. Coutinho came on for his first appearance of the season; sure, he played like lukewarm garbage, but at least he's cup-tied. And Sevilla's manager was sent off for extreme pettiness – twice knocking throw-ins away from Gomez – which is the type of extreme pettiness you can only admire. Although, the Muriel substitution came after the sending off, so maybe that wasn't so great.

So here were are, yet again. It's not the worst result, especially since the other two sides in the group also drew, but it's also not good enough, yet again. Schizophrenic Liverpool, yet again.

Minutes seven though 71 – especially the tenth through 45th – again show what Liverpool are capable of, as they've done in at least parts of every match except last weekend's. But one moment in the fifth minute and everything after the 71st show how much Liverpool still have to improve and still have to overcome if they're going to get anywhere near achieving their goals.

29 August 2017

On Naby Keita

We've got to wait a year – WHICH SUCKS; GRATIFY ME NOW – but it's official. Naby Keita will be a Liverpool player. Later, rather than sooner, specifically on July 1, 2018. 306 days from now. Let the countdown begin.

Liverpool are paying more than next summer's release clause – reportedly around £55m – to ensure that Naby Keita will be a Liverpool player next season. There will not be a chance for other clubs to jump in ahead of Liverpool. He will be a Liverpool player whether or not Liverpool are in next season's Champions League. We'd all prefer it'd be this season than next, but RB Leipzig just weren't going to sell now. If now isn't an option, a year from now is the best possible outcome. Because Naby Keita will be a Liverpool player.

And I cannot wait. Because I do not understand Naby Keita.

Wait, that came out wrong. Let me rephrase.

I do not understand how Naby Keita does everything that Naby Keita does.



I do not understand how a player who scored eight goals and tallied seven assists in the league last season – with only one assist and no goals from set plays; the others all from open play – also averaged more than three tackles and three interceptions every 90 minutes.



I do not understand how that same player – a central midfielder capable of playing in literally any midfield role – also completes more than three successful dribbles per 90, with a surprisingly large amount through the congested center of the opposition's half.



I do not understand how a player this well-rounded, who does almost everything exceptionally well, who has almost no statistical midfield peer (*waves at Thiago Alcantara and Luka Modric and that's about it*), is only 22 years old.



I do not understand Naby Keita. And that is very much a good thing.



*long, low whistle*

Naby Keita's attacking statistics are similar to Adam Lallana's, the most potent of Liverpool's midfielders last season. His defensive statistics are almost all better than both Can and Henderson's. He's more well-rounded that Gini Wijnaldum. There's no point even including Lucas Leiva in the above chart, who played half of his matches as a center-back and still only surpasses Keita in fouls committed and aerial duels. None of Liverpool's central midfielders are anywhere near as talented as Keita when running with the ball; Keita's successful dribbles per 90 and dribble success rate even surpass Coutinho's (2.81 per 90, 61.95% success rate). No central midfielder who made at least 10 Bundesliga appearances averaged more dribbles per 90 minutes than Naby Keita.

The shorter version. His attacking output reminds me of Lallana, but he's seven years younger. His late runs into the box and movement remind me of Wijnaldum, but he's a vastly more influential player. His dribbling reminds me of Coutinho, who played "wide" in the front three for the vast majority of last season. And his recovery when chasing down the opposition, his octopus-esque tackles and interceptions, don't remind me of anyone in the current Liverpool squad, because no one does it anywhere near as well as Keita does.

Let's play the precedent game.

There's some Gerrard to him: a midfielder with an almost complete tool set, but that's not close enough. Keita doesn't have the physicality or size, but is also clearly an out-and-out central midfielder. Unlike Gerrard, who often never seemed disciplined enough, whose best seasons came as a #10 or as a right-winger (and I will probably die with the words "Gerrard should have been a right-back" on my lips).

There's some Yaya Toure to him: a complete midfielder from box to box, a player supposedly his idol. Keita clearly doesn't have Toure's CLANK CLANK REMOVE YOURSELF FROM MY PATH, PUNY HUMANS physicality, but he's also a vastly superior passer and dribbler, much quicker and smarter in possession, and better at taking the ball from the other team.

There's more than some Iniesta to him: his ability with the ball, his ability on the ball, his ability in tight spaces, but there's also a lot more going on in defense. And a similar comparison can be made with the too-quickly-forgotten Deco – a nickname he inherited early in his career and is still referred to in his Instagram handle.

And yes, there's a little bit of Makelele or Kante because of those defensive abilities, but it's a comparison far too facile and made far too often solely because of his skin color. Mascherano applies too, especially in the way he chases down attackers, but Keita is light years upon light years better on the ball than all three.

There are a lot of different archetypes rolled into one midfielder here. And, again, it's a 22-year-old midfielder we're talking about here. Who did all these things when playing for the second-place side in the second- or third-best league in Europe, a side which was playing in the German second division just two seasons ago.

I do not understand Naby Keita. Naby Keita is utterly baffling. And in the best possible way.

There is almost nothing concerning. Almost no weaknesses, which is something you can't write about 99% of the midfielders in football. But there are a couple.

Keita's only real fault is his aerial ability. He's a wee little fella, in a team already full of wee little fellas. Naby Keita is 5'7", which would somewhat frighten if he's deployed as the deepest midfielder in the band of three that Liverpool usually plays, given certain sides' delight at launching long balls into Liverpool's defensive third. That and he commits fouls at a fairly high rate – just like Emre Can – which, considering Liverpool's set play defending, etc etc.

But I also don't think Naby Keita will play as Liverpool's deepest midfielder all that often. There will be times, because of the amount of matches to come, because injuries are inevitable, but that's not where I expect he'll primarily be deployed.

Speaking of injuries, that's the one bane to completing a transfer a year ahead of time. Let us bow our heads and pray, and hope that absolutely nothing happens to our dear Naby Keita over the next 12 months. RB Leipzig know they're not going to have the player after this season – not that they were going to anyway – and if they're absolute jerks, they could run him into the ground. Protect your neck, kid.

And, as with Salah – who's already made a massive difference, even if we'd all appreciate putting away more of his chances – I have absolutely no concerns about the transfer fee.

I write this with no exaggeration. I am no expert – you should know this by now – but having watched far too many of Keita's matches and read into Keita's stats far too deeply over the last two months, I am damned near convinced that he is uniquely, superlatively talented. That he is worth every cent, pence, and euro of his transfer fee, even though it's by far the club record, even though he's still not joining Liverpool for another year.

That Naby Keita is a prototypical Jürgen Klopp type of player. That Naby Keita is already one of the best midfielders in the world. That he'll probably get even better at RB Leipzig over the course of this season, in the Champions League, in a side that every other Bundesliga side will be gunning for. That he has the potential to be one of the best midfielders to ever play the game. And that he is the sort of player who helps you win the league.

It's not a deal that should have any impact on whether Coutinho stays or goes, either this summer or next. But it will make the pain less if the Brazilian does depart next year. I can't do anything but take Liverpool at face value, and continue to believe that Coutinho will still be with the club comes September 1. It's even better if this is the sort of deal that helps convince Coutinho that this is the sort of club he should be at.

Either way, it is another masterstroke by Liverpool's often-criticized recruitment department. Firmino, very much a Michael Edwards and Transfer Committee deal, prior to Klopp's arrival. Mané, Salah, and now Keita for eye-watering fees that are still well-below market value. Wijnaldum and Matip, seemingly successes, if to a lesser extent. Grujic and Robertson odds-on to come good in the future. It's a fantastic deal for a player who'll improve Liverpool immeasurably next season, who will still only be 23 when he joins the club. It's evidence of long-term planning, something which rarely happened under previous managers or transfer committees.

This season's just started – we're just coming off a 4-0 win over Arsenal, for heaven's sake – and I already can't wait for next season.

It truly is fun when Liverpool are fun again.

28 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

Previous Match Infographics: Hoffenheim (h), Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored and Liverpool FC



As said yesterday, this played out an awful lot like Liverpool's Champions League qualifier. The same set-up from both sides. The opposition blown away from the start. Four Liverpool goals. Almost exact passing totals from the two sides.

Arsenal's opposition scouting has a lot to answer for here.

This is the also second game in a row where Liverpool had six Opta-defined clear-cut chances. Liverpool didn't have six in a match at all last season. And, like Hoffenheim, Arsenal had none.

I still maintain that I'd blame Arsene Wenger for this defeat far more than I would the Arsenal players, but I will also readily admit that individuals did not help their cause. Most of the criticism has fallen on Arsenal's first half midfield, especially Ramsey, or Bellerin's error for Liverpool's third. I'd like to highlight Arsenal's supposed defensive stalwart, the rock between a youngster and a left-back.

Just before the first goal. Koscielny clearly has Firmino.



Koscielny does not have Firmino.



Then, the fourth goal. Koscielny clearly has Sturridge; he's even looking right at him!



Koscielny does not have Sturridge.



If this were from Dejan Lovren, we'd be howling for weeks.

Conversely, while there are a ton of very good things to pick out from individual Liverpool players – the potency of that front three, Wijnaldum completing eight successful take-ons, Emre Can's role in transitions – I'd like to point out one that I've seen go unmentioned so far. Liverpool's first two goals came from Joe Gomez interceptions: one in the final third, one in Liverpool's penalty box. Guile and ability from a 20-year-old who's hardly featured over the last two seasons, at both ends of the pitch, including a weaker-footed assist perfectly weighted to open the scoring. From the third-choice right-back, who's also fourth-choice center-back.

Liverpool have now kept seven clean sheets in their last nine PL games, going back to mid-April last season. Matip-Lovren started all but Liverpool's 1-0 win over Palace last week. There have been ground-out wins: 1-0 West Brom, Watford, and Palace. There have been massacres: 4-0 West Ham, 3-0 Boro, and 4-0 Arsenal. There have been frustrations: 0-0 Southampton. And there have been mistakes: 1-2 Palace, 3-3 Watford. Three of the five goals conceded – one against Palace and two against Watford – came from corners.

There are still mistakes in that unit. It's still too shallow for my liking, with another center-back seemingly necessary. But, because of those notable errors, because of the set play failings, we're sometimes blinded to the fact that it's actually better than we admit.

It's been two years since any side kept a clean sheet in this fixture – since 0-0 at Arsenal under Rodgers in August 2015. It's been more than 11 years since Liverpool kept a clean sheet in this fixture at Anfield, since a 1-0 win in February 2006. This was the first time Arsenal's been held without a shot on-target since October 2014. It's only the fifth time that Liverpool have held a league opponent without a shot on-target under Jürgen Klopp.

It was as thorough a beating as possible. And we're all aware of how good it was in attack. How good Firmino, Mané, and Salah already are, and can continue to be, especially when they're allowed this much space and that many chances to counter. But we also need recognize how good Liverpool were, and can be, in both midfield and defense as well, in contrast to what we feared after the first two games of the season.

27 August 2017

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

Goals:
Firmino 17'
Mané 40'
Salah 57'
Sturridge 77'

We make this joke a lot, usually in matches against other top-six sides. But I truly do wish Liverpool could play Arsenal every week.

Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool have now played Arsenal four times. They've scored at least three goals in all four of those matches. This, however, was the first time that Liverpool also kept a clean sheet. Because Arsenal failed to put a single shot on-target. It's the first time that Liverpool kept a clean sheet against Arsenal at Anfield since February 2006. Yes. More than 11 years ago.

It comes down to two factors. How good Liverpool can be in attack, and the choices that Arsenal – read: Arsene Wenger – made to take on the hosts.

That Arsenal attempted to play the same system and style that Hoffenheim tried at Anfield was a bad idea. Liverpool's midfield again looked a real midfield, out-numbering and over-powering Ramsey and Xhaka in the middle. And then Firmino, Mané, and Salah wreaked utter destruction, because that's what that front three does.

Liverpool should have opened the scoring at the exact same moment as against Hoffenheim as well. A tenth-minute clear-cut chance created by Can and Firmino, taken by Salah, but saved by Cech. At least we wouldn't have to wait much longer. Gomez stealing the ball in Arsenal's half, interplay between him, Salah, and Can, Gomez's cross to an unmarked Firmino run into the box, easily headed past Cech.

One goal from pressing, nearly another two minutes later – Henderson robbing possession, to Firmino, back to Henderson, missed wide from a narrow angle – then three from counter-attacking.

Do not let Liverpool score early, and then do not give Liverpool space.

Do. Not. Give. Liverpool. Space.

I mean, I really want you to. But you probably shouldn't.

It's the 40th minute. Liverpool have had chances to extend their lead but haven't yet, something which always makes as nervous. And Arsenal are in Liverpool's box. But a Gomez interception to Wijnaldum to Can to Firmino to Mané, now one-on-one with poor Rob Holding in Arsenal's box. A cut onto his right, even though every human in the world knows he's cutting onto his right, and a curler past Cech. 16 seconds from start to finish.

2-0 at halftime absolutely did not flatter the home side.

Hoffenheim at least changed to a 4-2-3-1 in the 24th minute to stem Liverpool's tide. It took Arsenal until halftime. And they were better for about ten minutes after the restart, but without reward, any really semblance of reward. Too little, too late. And then Liverpool took over again. Salah, again denied from a close-range clear-cut chance on the counter. Then Salah, finally, with the ball in the back of the net: an Arsenal corner, but Salah robbing Bellerin after the cross is cleared, then sprinting two-thirds the pitch to slot past Cech, seven seconds from start to finish.

57 minutes into the match, and all three of Liverpool's front three have scored. Just as happened at Watford on opening day, almost to the exact second.

From there, Arsenal truly beaten. From there, Liverpool buoyant, passing with purpose, denying chances, in control and always looking for that counter.

A chance to make subs, to rest players after the exertions since the start of the season. And the first substitute gets Liverpool's fourth. Arsenal's cross easily dealt with, Gomez to Firmino, who unbelievably turns away from and between two defenders and finds Can, to Salah, a couldn't-be-better-aimed cross from the left to a couldn't-be-more-open Sturridge at the back post. 15 seconds from start to finish. Sturridge's first goal at Anfield – in front of the Kop – since December.

There's not much else to be said about Liverpool's attack. They are good. Really good. Good in games where there's a lack of space, as at Watford, and really, really good in games like this. There's Sturridge, Solanke, and Origi off the bench, there's Coutinho and Lallana to return from injury. They're all gonna score a lot of goals, and even more goals when Salah starts consistently converting great chances.

It's been five games now. Mané, Firmino, and Salah have all scored three goals. Firmino's got three assists, Mané two, and Salah one. Through five games, Liverpool have had 18 clear-cut chances, an average of 3.5 per game, and Salah, Firmino, and Mané have been on the end of 14 of those. Liverpool averaged 1.9 in the league last season.

But again, I'm almost as impressed with the midfield, if only because we expect this from the attack. Getting this sort of play from Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Can wasn't anywhere near as expected, especially after the first two fixtures. We got the passing, covering, and pressing – especially pressing – from Henderson that we saw on Wednesday. Wijnaldum on the ball was something to behold, surging runs forward, breaking Arsenal ankles on three separate occasions, exactly what he's needed to do. And Emre Can was undeniable, adding passes like those to free Firmino and Salah on the break for Liverpool's second and fourth, and the interplay and low cross for that early Salah chance to his already beast-mode physicality.

And we'll give the defense its due as well. The full-backs were excellent, in both attack – Joe Gomez assist! – and defense. Lovren and Matip did as needed, which is all I'll ever ask. Karius frightened on three separate occasions and that's not great, but whatever, he got through it. But mostly, it was a team effort, with everyone quick to get back and cover, and Arsenal attackers smothered by numbers rather than individual dual wins.

A lot of focus will be what Arsenal did. What Arsenal's players did. Underperformers. Don't respect the shirt. Not passionate enough. Alexis wants out, Özil again goes missing. Sure, a lot of talent didn't do what was needed today. Zero shots on-target is pretty bad, even if none were especially good chances thanks to what Liverpool did. Midfielders, wing-backs, and attackers could and should have been quicker to close down Liverpool in the middle of the pitch, but most the worst examples of it came after Liverpool were already two up. Yes, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain switched off on Liverpool's first, and Bellerin screwed up on Liverpool's third.

I'm still far more inclined to blame the manager, who picked a side that played directly to Liverpool's strengths. Who started a 21-year-old center-back with 10 Premier League appearances against Sadio Mané, a left-back at center-back opposite Salah, a right wing-back at left-wing back, and a central midfielder at right-wing back. Who left Mustafi, Kolasinac, and Lacazette on the bench. Who played Aaron Ramsey in a two-man midfield against Liverpool's three.

And I'm far more inclined to credit Liverpool's players, in all three areas of the pitch.