29 April 2017

Liverpool at Watford 05.01.17

3pm ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
6-1 Liverpool (h) 11.06.16
2-0 Liverpool (h) 05.08.16
0-3 Watford (a) 12.20.15
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.13.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Palace (h); 1-0 West Brom (a); 2-1 Stoke (a)
Watford: 0-2 Hull (a); 1-0 Swansea (h); 0-4 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 13; Firmino 11; Coutinho 10; Lallana, Milner 7; Origi 6; Wijnaldum 5; Can 4; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Watford: Deeney 10; Capoue 6; Okaka 3; Holebas, Kabasele, Kaboul, Niang, Pereyra 2; Britos, Doucoure, Ighalo, Prödl, Success, Zuniga 1

Referee: Craig Pawson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Can Wijnaldum
Firmino Origi Coutinho

We know where Liverpool have failed lately. Liverpool know where Liverpool have failed lately. Create more chances. Put more shots on-target. Try not to do anything stupid in defense.

It's easy, football.

Having Lallana back in midfield should help the first two issues. His pressing and ability with the ball should lead to a more threatening central midfield and more and better chances. More and better chances should lead to more shots on-target. At least, it seems as if Lallana will be back. He's been in training all week – as has Daniel Sturridge, for what that's worth – but if he's only fit enough for the bench, we'll see the exact XI we saw in the last two matches. The one with one open play shot on-target in the last two matches. Wooooo.

And, of course, the "don't do anything dumb in defense" remains a concern. Will probably always remain a concern; not as consistently bad as we all make it out to be, but perpetually lurking in the background ready to strike. And these are the games that seem to frighten the most.

Away from home. Against a mid-to-lower table side (even if Watford currently sit 10th, there's next-to-nothing between 9th and 15th). Against opposition Liverpool *should* beat, against opposition Liverpool handily beat at home early in the season when the attack was afire. Against opposition which doesn't really care to have much possession and likes to defend deep. Against opposition happy to ugly up a game as much as possible; no side has more yellow cards this season and only West Ham and Hull have more red cards. Against a target-man striker who's good in the air and on the counter, against a midfield who'll have two reasonably good pressers, and against fast, counter-attacking wingers and full-backs.

And against opposition who've been surprisingly competent on their own ground lately. Watford have been officially bad on their travels almost all season long, but they've won three in a row at home, keeping clean sheets in all three. The last time they conceded at home was against Southampton on March 4. Liverpool have conceded six at home since – to Burnley, Everton, Bournemouth (twice), and Palace (twice). They've lost at home just twice in 2017, the same total as Liverpool, and that was against Tottenham and Southampton. Liverpool, I don't hesitate to remind, did it against Swansea and Palace.

Admittedly, those three consecutive Watford home wins came against Sunderland, West Brom, and Swansea, but let's not mention how Liverpool fared in a couple of matches against those sides. And Liverpool's kept just one clean sheet in their last nine – like Watford, against West Brom, but with Liverpool winning 1-0 where Watford won 2-0.

Watford have gotten healthier – relatively speaking – at a helpful time, with Deeney, Capoue, and Prödl all missing matches either last month or earlier in this. Pereyra, Zarate, Watson, Kaboul, and Cathcart are all still absent, but Deeney's far more crucial to the attack, Capoue to the midfield, and Prödl to the defense.

Tomorrow's XI is likely to be Gomes; Janmaat, Prödl, Britos, Holebas; Capoue, Doucoure, Cleverley; Amrabat, Deeney, Niang. In addition to Deeney and Capoue, Amrabat and Niang are dangerous wingers, and both Janmaat and Holebas are very good at getting forward from full-back. And it's not as if Liverpool have defended the flanks well lately, especially in matches where the full-backs have to join the attack because of the opposition's deep defense.

Last week was a complete and comprehensive failure, against opposition who'll play a lot like Monday's opponents will play. And that match was at Anfield, where – despite those losses to Palace and Swansea – Liverpool have usually been far better in both attack and defense.

There are only four matches left, and both City and United could and probably will be ahead of Liverpool by kick-off on Monday. Another failure is simply not an option.

25 April 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-2 Crystal Palace

Previous Match Infographics: West Brom (a), Stoke (a), Bournemouth (h), Everton (h), Manchester City (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Leicester (a), Tottenham (h), Hull (a), Chelsea (h), Swansea (h), Manchester United (a), Sunderland (a), Manchester City (a), Stoke (h), Everton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

You can survive a stupid defense with an all-conquering attack, as we saw throughout the first half of the season. You can survive a stuttering attack with a competent defense, as we saw at West Brom last week, as well as more than a few matches against Liverpool's Top 7 peers.

You cannot survive weakness at both ends of the pitch. Or games like Sunday's will turn into results like Sunday's. It is a lot easier to ignore Liverpool's defensive frailties – seemingly no matter who's playing, even if this is the first time that Liverpool's lost when both Matip and Lovren start – or Lovren's hilarity or etc etc when Liverpool score three, four, five.

Liverpool aren't scoring three, four, five with Mané, Lallana, Henderson, Sturridge, and Ings absent. Liverpool may still be top scorers in the division, but they sure haven't looked it lately. And squad depth, injuries, etc are an enormous reason why.

So it's probably fitting that this is the nadir. A season-low in shot accuracy – 7.14%, one on-target from 14 in total – the lowest shooting accuracy in a match since Klopp joined Liverpool, and just the third time that Klopp's Liverpool have posted only one shot on-target in a match, after 1-0 v City on New Year's Eve, where Liverpool shut it down after an early goal, and 0-2 at Newcastle last season, which was hilariously bad for multiple reasons. No open play shots on-target, with the lone coming from Coutinho's direct free kick.

Since Liverpool's 1-1 draw at Manchester City six matches ago, Liverpool have had ten clear-cut chances, scoring five. 1.67 per match, 50% conversion. Liverpool's opponents have had 16, scoring seven, 2.67 per match with 43.8% conversion. Prior, Liverpool averaged 2.0 per match with 58.9% conversion. Their opponents averaged 1.21 per match with 55.9% conversion.

Imagine if Simon Mignolet hadn't saved three clear-cut chances against Stoke and West Brom.

You cannot survive weakness at both ends of the pitch.

So, yeah, there's Liverpool's increasing inability to score, to create clear-cut chances, to put shots on-target. There's still Liverpool's inability to break down deep, packed defenses. And there's still Liverpool's defending, especially against sides who want nothing more than counter-attacks and set plays.

And there's Christian Benteke, who did for Crystal Palace what he did for Aston Villa far, far too often.

Hell, even if Benteke never played – *looks at Liverpool's injury list* Narrator: "He would have played." – Liverpool should have kept him just so he can't do this. I know sample size remains an important thing but still. Benteke's scoring and shot accuracy against Liverpool is unconscionable, and he's been doing it since 2012-13, whether facing Skrtel, Agger, Carragher, Toure, Lovren, Sakho, or Matip.

So, once again, we've seen this story before, but somehow made even worse.

Another dismal performance against one of teams currently sitting between 12th and 18th, where all six of Liverpool's losses this season have come from. The lowest shooting accuracy of the season. More points dropped despite taking a 1-0 lead. A weakened XI, an inexperienced bench, an inability to change proceedings. Only seven shots allowed, but two high-value clear-cut chances conceded, both scored. Two goals conceded that shouldn't have been conceded – from a cross and from a set play – with an obvious scapegoat for both. Both goals scored by an ex-Liverpool player.

And all this with just four matches left to play, making the necessary Champions League qualification exponentially harder.

23 April 2017

Liverpool 1-2 Crystal Palace

Coutinho 21'
Benteke 42' 74'

Back to the bad old days. So much for the resiliency shown in the two previous wins, so much for the seven-game unbeaten run.

Par for the awful course from start to finish, for better and worse.

Patient, almost acceptable, almost decent, but basically unthreatening from the opening whistle, tons of possession but few chances. Then, as against West Brom, Liverpool score a well-taken set play goal, this time earlier in the first half, this time from Coutinho. A set play that he single-handedly won, then his second direct free kick of the season, the first time a Liverpool player's scored two direct free kicks in the Premier League since both Suarez and Gerrard did it in 2013-14.

Decent but unthreatening play continues, but not the needed second goal, with Liverpool limited to one mis-hit Can chance. The opposition rightfully assesses that the same will suffice, keep it tight and wait for Liverpool to Liverpool. And Liverpool Liverpools. One over-the-top hopeful pass. Lovren insanely charges into nowhere, leaving Cabaye able to turn into space, Matip caught in two minds, and Clyne futilely chasing Benteke. A well-hit cross, a tap-in, just minutes before half-time.

We saw all of the archetypal stages of a 2017 Liverpool match against anyone outside the Top 7.

1) Everything could be better but is basically okay
2) Hey, that was good, everything might not be bad!
3) *One opposition pass, or a set play, or a mistake unlocks Liverpool's defense*
4) Welp, we're boned

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Liverpool had a little flurry to start the second half, but sound and fury signifying nothing, almost all from Philippe Coutinho. Wonderful footwork to create space just outside the box, but a left-footed effort fired far over. A run into and through the box, but a penalty not given when he stayed on his feet after Martin Kelly clipped his ankle and his close-range shot blocked by Tomkins. A header from Clyne's dangerous cross hitting Origi, although it would've been off-target anyway.

And then the decline and then the collapse. A frustrated Liverpool continues to run headlong into a brick wall and fails to bust through it. Liverpool create just one chance for the next 20 minutes: Firmino from a very wide angle pulled wide of the far post.

And Liverpool Liverpools, again. Dejan Lovren does Dejan Lovren, again: giving the ball away with a dumb pass out of defense then charging in and missing the tackle, putting Townsend through on goal, rescued by Milner's tackle. Liverpool's set play marking does Liverpool's set play marking, again: Firmino misses his clearance at the near post, players are caught static as the ball sails through the six-yard box, an opposition player reacts first for a tap-in. Benteke. Again.

And Liverpool have no response, because Plan A isn't working and the bench has an average age of 19, the outfield players available being Woodburn, Alexander-Arnold, Grujic, Gomez, Rhian Brewster, and Old Man Alberto Moreno. Alexander-Arnold, Moreno, and Grujic come on. Liverpool's formation becomes a 3 - ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ - ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. There are a couple of shots, but none worth mentioning and none anywhere near on-target.

And Liverpool lose. For, to be fair, just the second time at Anfield this season. But also, for the sixth time in 13 matches against sides currently sitting 12th-18th. Five wins, two draws, and six losses – 1.31 PPG – against teams who currently have between 31 and 38 points. Liverpool have 66. Liverpool should have at least ten more.

To recap:

It is the seventh time that Liverpool have failed to win after taking a 1-0 lead.

Liverpool failed to put a single open play shot on-target today. They've put all of three on-target in the last two matches: two from set plays leading to two goals and a slow roller from Origi from outside the box. Three on-target. One from open play. From 29 shots in total.

Both goals were avoidable and stupidly allowed, and there's a definite scapegoat involved in both. And ex-Liverpool player Christian Benteke scored both of them.

This is Sam Allardyce's first league win at Anfield at the 14th time of asking.

It's Crystal Palace's third consecutive win at Anfield. No side's beaten Liverpool three-in-a-row at Anfield since Chelsea did it from 2003-2005.

And now, Champions League qualification's arguably out of Liverpool's hands. Both City and United can catch Liverpool with their games in-hand, despite facing each other this Thursday.

And if Liverpool don't qualify for the Champions League, this season is a failure.

22 April 2017

Liverpool v Crystal Palace 04.23.17

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

Last four head-to-head:
4-2 Liverpool (a) 10.29.16
2-1 Liverpool (a) 03.06.16
2-1 Palace (h) 11.08.15
3-1 Palace (h) 05.16.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 West Brom (a); 2-1 Stoke (a); 2-2 Bournemouth (a)
Palace: 2-2 Leicester (h); 3-0 Arsenal (h); 1-3 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 13; Firmino 11; Coutinho 9; Lallana, Milner 7; Origi 6; Wijnaldum 5; Can 4; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Palace: Benteke 12; Zaha 6; McArthur 5; Cabaye 4; Dann, Tomkins, Townsend 3; Wickham 2; Campbell, Ledley, Milivojevic, van Aanholt 1

Referee: Andre Marriner (LFC History) (WhoScored)

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Gomez Lovren Milner
Wijnaldum Lucas Can
Firmino Origi Coutinho

This is the song that doesn't end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.

So, in addition to Mané, Henderson, Lallana, Ings, etc., Matip, Klavan, and Lucas are all questionable with minor muscle injuries. That's two center-backs (two-and-a-half if we're being generous), three central midfielders, a would-have-been-helpful back-up striker, and Liverpool's best attacker.

Fantastic. As if we needed more evidence that Liverpool's squad is insanely shallow.

I can't even really begin to guess how Liverpool would line-up with Lucas missing from a midfield already without Henderson and Lallana, hence the above predicted XI. 3-4-3, with just Wijnaldum and Can, would be an option if more center-backs were fit. Please no Milner in midfield, not after that first half at Stoke. Maybe 4-4-2 with both Sturridge and Origi up top? Maybe Coutinho drops into the three with Woodburn or Alexander-Arnold in attack? Alexander-Arnold has also played in central midfield for the u23s. Grujic could be an option, although I remain wary of a player who's barely featured all season, even if he's making the bench these days. Kevin Stewart hasn't even made the bench in almost two months, and hasn't played in a league match since September.

As for the center-backs, Matip's at least seemingly most likely of the doubtful. Which would be helpful. But Joe Gomez, even without almost any playing time with the first team due to another lengthy injury, might not be the worst idea given his strength and speed. There's a reasonable argument that he'd be far better suited to face Benteke than either Klavan or Lucas.

Crystal Palace are all but safe, seven points and substantial goal difference ahead of the relegation zone. That wasn't the case a little more than month ago, barely clinging onto 17th ahead of Hull and Boro, in the bottom three as recently as the end of February. But that's what happens when you win five of your last seven, including victories at Chelsea and against Arsenal. Allardyce will, of course, take full and total credit for their rejuvenation, but a center-back named Mamadou Sakho (*shrugs quizzically*) has been a key part – the winning streak beginning upon his entrance into the starting XI – and he's ineligible tomorrow. And they're also missing his back-up, Scott Dann, through injury.

Hennessey; Ward, Kelly, Tomkins, van Aanholt; Cabaye, Milivojevic; Zaha, Puncheon, Townsend; Benteke. Delaney could come into defense rather than Tomkins, Schlupp has been starting at left-back recently but van Aanholt's fit again, and Allardyce could try to pack the midfield with McArthur or Ledley rather than Puncheon or Townsend.

Because Crystal Palace will Allardyce. Strong in the center, no matter absentees, combative in midfield, fast on the flanks, counters and crosses. I am obviously most worried by the former Liverpool players involved, not only top scorer Christian Benteke – who LOVES playing against Liverpool – but even Martin Kelly, now (correctly) used more often at center-back. But Wilfried Zaha's become the centerpiece: still only 24, by far his best season return with six goals and nine assists, adding a definitive end product to his pace and dribbling. Zaha and Benteke on the counter should absolutely terrify Liverpool. They'd terrify a full-strength Liverpool.

The last time these sides met, albeit without Sam Allardyce involved, was just dumb. Palace only took seven shots but put six on-target, with Benteke responsible for three of them, scoring twice. Liverpool twice allowed equalizers barely minutes after taking the lead, the first of which came from a hilariously horrific defensive error, the second from a too-easy Zaha cross, both from headers.

But Liverpool were scoring for fun those days, unbeaten in ten going into that match, housing Watford 6-1 after that match. And Liverpool put two more past Palace after Palace had gotten back to 2-2. Liverpool are not scoring for fun these days, reliant on defense (?!?!?!?!) and doing *just enough* in attack for recent wins over West Brom and Stoke.

That's going to be a lot harder tomorrow with all the absentees. But Liverpool have no other choice at this stage of the season. Not with the incredibly tense and tight chase for fourth. Not with just five matches remaining.

17 April 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 West Brom

Previous Match Infographics: Stoke (a), Bournemouth (h), Everton (h), Manchester City (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Leicester (a), Tottenham (h), Hull (a), Chelsea (h), Swansea (h), Manchester United (a), Sunderland (a), Manchester City (a), Stoke (h), Everton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

Defense wins matches. Well, okay, put it another way: defense assures you don't lose matches or leads, and will get you the win if you finish just one competent attacking move, whether from open play or a set play.

It happens when you register well above your season average in both tackles and interceptions – especially interceptions, joint-second most by Liverpool this season, tied with 1-1 at Manchester United and behind only 1-0 v Manchester City – despite having nearly 64% possession.

When you win 20 of 32 aerial duels in your own half, including eight of 10 in the penalty box, against the side with the joint-most headed goals in the league, holding them to just one errant, off-balance headed shot.

When you limit the league's most threatening side on set plays to zero chances from them, despite four corners, a few free kicks, and what felt like far too many long throws.

When you catch West Brom offsides on six different occasions, well above their 1.4 per game average.

When your goalkeeper saves his fifth clear-cut chance in the last four matches, stopping 50% of the on-target big chances he's faced.

And you can win regardless of posting a joint-lowest shooting accuracy in a match this season, with just two of 15 shots on-target. You can win regardless of taking more shots from outside the box than in. You can win despite still missing four of the usual front-six starters.

Because, in addition to that superlative defense, you also get your first set play goal in the league since January 2, and first free kick goal since October 1. When Roberto Firmino scores the winner for the second-successive match, with three goals and three assists in his last six appearances, after going six games in all competitions without any of either.

And you get your first 1-0 win of 2017, the last coming on New Year's Eve. Only the third 1-0 win of the campaign, after 1-0 Everton and 1-0 City, the latter being Liverpool's best defensive performance of the season, the former a match where they had to hang on by fingernails for the first half-hour, eventually grinding their way to the latest of winners.

Win ugly. Beat the dross. Do it away from home, against a side and manager that's frequently foiled and frustrated you. It's taken far too long, but maybe Liverpool are finally learning.

16 April 2017

Liverpool 1-0 West Brom

Firmino 45+1'

Liverpool were getting Pulis'd until Liverpool Pulis'd Pulis.

That'll do just fine.

Any trip to West Brom and any match against a Tony Pulis side – especially away from home – is going to be a frustrating match. There will be 11 opposition players in their own half behind the ball for long stretches. Chances will be few and far between and mostly not very good. You will have way too much possession but still have to cope with threatening long balls and set plays.

And all that happened. 45 minutes of meh and fouls and back passes and hoofs and lightly sprinkled with half-chances untaken for both sides. Firmino shooting wide, Coutinho volleying over and shooting over; Chadli unable to connect at the back post from a deep free kick, Robson-Kanu tamely shooting at Mignolet. Lovren, Lucas, and Matip seemingly always on the ball; Firmino, Coutinho, and Origi not on the ball nearly enough.

Then a set play. An unnecessary foul. Not the most threatening cross in, but a dangerous flick-on. A second ball finding an open goal-scorer sneaking behind his marker to make the headed break-through with just seconds left in the first half.

Imagine my surprise when this all leads to Liverpool scoring, not Liverpool conceding. Also, my delight. Schadenfreude is a hell of a drug.

It wasn't incredibly surprising to see more of the same in the second half until it was entirely unfeasible for West Brom to do so. 25 or so more minutes of near-constant Liverpool possession with only a couple of chance and none taken. Origi blasting wide from what's become his spot on the left edge of the box. Milner getting his volley all wrong after a delightful move from Wijnaldum and Firmino. Origi with the ball in the net but Firmino rightfully ruled offside in the build-up.

But then three West Brom changes and then Liverpool increasingly pushed back, and an unsurprising spell of opposition pressure but also without a ton of chances. As in Liverpool's 2-1 win over West Brom at Anfield in October, as in recent 2-1 wins against Burnley and at Stoke. And as in the recent 2-2 against Bournemouth, where Bournemouth got a late equalizer from next to nothing.

Thankfully, today was at Stoke, not against Bournemouth. And like against Stoke, the credit goes to Simon Mignolet. West Brom had their one moment in the 80th minute. And West Brom didn't take it, as Salomon Rondon held up and turned Matip before feeding Matty Phillips, but the clear-cut chance denied by a brilliant kick-save.

The final 10 minutes were incredibly stupid, but not in the worst way. Too much West Brom possession. Too many West Brom set plays. Too much Liverpool hoofing, hoping, and resetting. But despite our constant, never-ending, yes-we're-traumatized fears, Liverpool held on well enough, with the end stages highlighted by a perfectly-in-character cameo from Alberto Moreno, a chance at an empty net on the break after another successfully defended corner pushed wide with three Liverpool players screaming at him from better positions. Never stop doing you, Alberto. Wait, no. Do stop. Stop right now.

It wasn't exceptionally impressive, but all 11 Liverpool starters worked hard, with Can and Firmino most noteworthy. The former had one of his all-action, dominating midfield performances that we need to see more consistently, the latter put in a shift so thorough I'm amazed there were rumors he might not be fit enough to play, not to mention contributing the lone goal. Mignolet, Matip, Lovren, and Lucas all did what they needed to in defense, whether in covering, in aerial duels, in punching crosses and in another late game-saving save.

That's now two consecutive one-goal victories away at sides who've often frustrated and punished Liverpool. Against the type of sides and types of matches which have so often foiled Liverpool this season. Liverpool hadn't won at the Hawthornes in the league since April 2012. Liverpool hadn't ever won an away league match against a Tony Pulis side. It's Liverpool's first 1-0 league win of 2017, and only the third of the campaign after 1-0 Everton (a) and 1-0 Manchester City (h). Liverpool now reclaim third place, two points ahead of City, and extend the gap over fifth to nine points, if only due to games in hand.

Liverpool did what Liverpool needed to do, at both ends of the pitch. At this point of the season, that's all that matters.

15 April 2017

Liverpool at West Brom 04.16.17

28 years. Justice For The 96.

8:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.22.16
1-1 (a) 05.15.16
2-2 (h) 12.13.15
0-0 (a) 04.25.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Stoke (a); 2-2 Bournemouth (a); 3-1 Everton (h)
West Brom: 0-1 Southampton (h); 0-2 Watford (a); 0-0 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 13; Firmino 10; Coutinho 9; Lallana, Milner 7; Origi 6; Wijnaldum 5; Can 4; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
West Brom: Rondon 7; McAuley 6; Chadli, Morrison 5; Phillips 4; Brunt, Dawson 3; Fletcher, Robson-Kanu 2; Evans, McClean 1

Referee: Jon Moss

Guess at a line-up:
Klavan Matip Lovren
Clyne Wijnaldum Can Milner
Firmino Sturridge Coutinho

Dejan Lovren hinted at Liverpool keeping the three-at-the-back system earlier this week, discussing the need to cope with West Brom's directness and questionably playing up how well he, Matip, and Klavan mesh.

It's not necessarily the worst idea in the world. In theory, more taller players would be better able to cope with long balls and set plays and aerial duels, especially after a week of actually training in said formation. And Liverpool's attack did well in the second half against Stoke, with Firmino, Coutinho, and Sturridge coming in, a 3-4-3 rather than unbalanced, inexperienced, and square-pegs-in-round-holes 3-5-1-1.

Unfortunately, Firmino's once again doubtful, for the same reasons which only saw him play the second half last week. And if Firmino's unable to start, Liverpool have a couple of options, although obviously none as good as the side with Firmino. With three at the back, it's probably more of a 3-5-1-1 as we saw to start the game against Stoke, with Lucas between Can and Wijnaldum and Coutinho behind either Sturridge or Origi. Maybe both Sturridge and Origi, with one ostensibly playing wide or in a 4-4-2 diamond. Or, one of the kids in the more typical 4-3-3 or even 3-4-3: either Woodburn or Harry Wilson.

I would really like to see Daniel Sturridge start tomorrow. Yes, because of his performance off the bench last week. Because he's finally fit. And because, when fit and firing, he is still one of Liverpool's better players. He links better with Liverpool's other attackers, is better able to lead the line against a side like West Brom, and is far, far more likely to score goals. And Divock Origi's pace could be more of a benefit if needed off the bench.

Whether it's three-at-the-back or 4-3-3, Lucas in midfield isn't the worst idea in the world either, for the same reason as three-at-the-back isn't the worst idea in the world. More taller players, more better headers, a firmer defensive shield.

Because Liverpool can't just roll an XI out and expect to overrun West Brom. That hasn't worked against many in 2017, unlike at the beginning of the season, and especially not with Liverpool missing Mané, Henderson, Lallana, and possibly Firmino as well. But it really won't work tomorrow. Liverpool have to respect West Brom. Liverpool have to actually game plan to beat West Brom.

If I haven't mentioned it before – p.s. I have – I really, really hate facing Tony Pulis sides. Even Tony Pulis sides that are winless in three, have lost four of their last six games, have actually scored goals in just one of their last six games, have lost their last two against Watford and Southampton, and are probably close to coasting into the end of the campaign. Tony Pulis sides never seem to coast against Liverpool.

My best guess at an XI is Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Fletcher, Livermore; Chadli, Morrison, Phillips; Rondon. Brunt and McClean other possibilities out wide. Maybe Claudio Yacob in midfield. Maybe 4-3-3, either with Morrison playing deeper or Brunt or Yacob coming in. West Brom, somehow at this stage of the season, have no injury concerns.

Regardless of personnel, West Brom will be West Brom. West Brom are West Brom. Deep, blocking, Uruk-Hai defenders. Destroyers in midfield. Quick, counter-attacking, crossing wingers, and a heading, hold-up play machine up front. Pure Tony Pulis right into the veins.

West Brom 3-1 Arsenal, almost exactly one month ago, is the terrifying template. That lone win in the last six, the only match where West Brom have scored in the last six. 77% Arsenal possession. A rapid-fire Arsenal equalizer in the 15th minute after unnecessarily conceding three minutes prior, which should have changed the tone and sent them on their way. But Arsenal never truly able to pierce West Brom's big, dumb, and always-in-the-way defense. Arsenal outshot after 90 minutes. And Arsenal conceding from two corners and some comedy goal-keeping. This may sound familiar, etc etc.

West Brom have, unsurprisingly, scored the most set play goals in the division. Something something Liverpool something corners. Something something sigh.

This could well be Liverpool's hardest match left on the calendar, although it's not as if we're all unaware that any match can be Liverpool's hardest match. But away from home. Against arguably the best and arguably the toughest of the mid-table bloc. Against a big, burly set play and counter-attacking side. Against Tony Pulis. At a ground where Liverpool haven't won a league match since October 2011, with one draw and three losses since.

There are six games left. Make them count.

10 April 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Stoke 

Previous Match Infographics: Bournemouth (h), Everton (h), Manchester City (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Leicester (a), Tottenham (h), Hull (a), Chelsea (h), Swansea (h), Manchester United (a), Sunderland (a), Manchester City (a), Stoke (h), Everton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Ham (h), Bournemouth (a), Sunderland (h), Southampton (a), Watford (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Brom (h), United (h), Swansea (a), Hull (h), Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Tottenham (a), Burnley (a), Arsenal (a)

All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.

The less said about that first half, the better. An unfamiliar formation, a makeshift XI. Not the worst performance, especially as the half went on, and some underserved bad luck, but still an unsurprising result. And probably the wrong decision, even considering the absentees and squad limitations.

The more said about the second half, and the second half changes, and Firmino, Coutinho, Sturridge, and Mignolet in that second half, the better.

And you can now add two more to that list.

So while there's a surprising amount of substitute goals, there aren't that many game-changing substitute goals, at least compared to last season. Origi's at Sunderland, maybe Origi's against Everton to seal the match, and Coutinho and Firmino's strikes yesterday. Otherwise, they've been added gloss on already near-certain results. And Christian Benteke, sold last summer, remains Klopp's joint-top substitute scorer.

There haven't been enough game-changing substitute goals because there haven't been enough game-changing substitutes. Usually, the squad's limitations are highlighted by Liverpool's substitutions, or lack thereof. Saturday, it was highlighted by the initial team selection, and rescued by being able to bring two – arguably three – of Liverpool's best players off the bench.

Still, Liverpool picked a good time to score some incredibly important substitute goals on Saturday. And at near-record pace, too. Only Mané's first-half quick-fire double against Tottenham saw two Liverpool goals scored in less time this season.

They weren't wholly individual goals – see: Sturridge's defense-splitting pass to Firmino and then run into the box for the first, as well as Wijnaldum's perfectly weighted ball over the top for the second – but those two moments of brilliance from brilliant players were deservedly the talking-points. Amazingly, better things happen with better players on the pitch.

And Liverpool very much needed those two moments.

This was Liverpool's largest Expected Goals deficit by Michael Caley's numbers this season. It's the joint-largest under Klopp, the same xG difference as in the 1-3 loss at Swansea with the second-string at the end of the last season.

Only two other sides have posted 2.0 xG or higher in games against Liverpool this season. Swansea's 2.5 xG at Swansea and Manchester City's 2.7 xG at City. Both Swansea and City had five big chances in those matches: each missed three, had one saved, and scored one. Liverpool won the first match 2-1 and drew the second 1-1.

Stoke had four big chances on Saturday: Walters' goal, Arnautovic's first-half shot into the side netting, and Mignolet's two miraculous saves on Adam and Berahino, with the score line at 0-1 and 2-1 respectively. As seemingly always happens with Liverpool, two of the four were self-inflicted: errors by Lovren and Wijnaldum to set up Arnautovic and Adam.

It's the first time Mignolet's saved two big chances in a match this season; he's now saved nine of 27 on-target big chances in league matches. Loris Karius has also saved two big chances in a match this season, but there's a massive asterisk. That was at Bournemouth, a 3-4 loss, with the second of those two saves setting up Ake's winner. Not only did Mignolet deny what could and probably would have been two crucial goals, both saves saw the ball pushed out of danger as well.

Mignolet has come in for a lot of deserved criticism this season (and last, and the season before that, and etc.), but this was a performance we'll all remember if Liverpool actually achieves its goals and finishes in the Top 4 this season.

Six games left.