Category Archives: Premier League match reports

I’ll mostly be writing my thoughts on our Premier League performances.

Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Capitulation

A calamitous 12 second-half minutes saw Liverpool concede a three-goal lead at Crystal Palace on Monday, after two Dwight Gayle goals completed an impressive Premier League comeback from Tony Pulis‘ men.

It started so well for the Reds, who stormed into a commanding lead courtesy of Joe Allen, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. Their basic requirement, to get the three points needed to keep the pressure on Manchester City, turned into a call for more goals in an attempt to reduce the goal-difference deficit.

But as they piled their numbers forward, suddenly their defence started to look shaky, and all it took was a deflected Damien Delaney strike on 79 minutes to kick-start a remarkable comeback for Palace.

As it stands, Liverpool have returned to the summit of the Premier League with 81 points, a point ahead of City, whose game in hand will be played at home against Aston Villa on Wednesday.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s capitulation on Monday.

 

Naivety Cost Liverpool the Title…and Probably the Title

Naivety Cost Liverpool the Game...and Probably the TitleJamie McDonald/Getty Images

It was a bullish Brendan Rodgers who suggested before the match that the title race wasn’t over, and that Liverpool had goals in them to chase City on goal difference, per The Guardian.

True to his word, his team exhibited the attacking flair and strength they’ve shown all season—but when they went 3-0 up, they decided to go for broke to challenge City’s goal-difference domination, which ended up handing Palace the impetus in the game.

Only Rodgers will know why he decided to replace Raheem Sterling (and not Lucas Leiva) with Philippe Coutinho right before Delaney’s goal, and only he will know why it was Victor Moses who was sent on for Sturridge, and not Daniel Agger.

Only Martin Skrtel will know how he was dragged so far out for Gayle’s equalizer, and only Glen Johnson will know why he failed to close down on both Delaney and Yannick Bolasie in the build-up to Palace’s goals.

Far from pinpointing any individual scapegoat, Liverpool need to address some serious “game management” issues this summer. Youth, energy and passion will take you a long way, but experience and cool heads need to prevail.

 

Squad Depth Issues Highlighted

Squad Depth Issues Highlighted

Clive Rose/Getty Images 

 

We mentioned in the previous slide the abject performances of Lucas and Moses, but they don’t touch on the root of the problem: Liverpool simply don’t have a strong enough squad to win a Premier League title.

A look at Manchester City and Chelsea‘s substitutes benches, along with a quick comparison with Liverpool’s, shows just how far the Reds are in terms of squad depth and strength, and their misery was compounded by Moses’ miss at the death.

We suggested a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the hard-fought win over Norwich City that Jordan Henderson’s last-gasp red card against City could prove to be costly in the title run-in. A couple of weeks on, we can’t help but think whether his presence on the Selhurst Park pitch on Monday could’ve helped stem Palace’s midfield momentum and plugged Liverpool’s gaps in the middle.

All the same, just as Rodgers was forced to bring on Iago Aspas against Chelsea, he didn’t have a single match-winner on the bench save for Coutinho.

The reality is that for a squad as shallow as Liverpool’s, they have done extremely well to find themselves top of the league on the second-to-last matchday of the season.

 

Transfer Failures Will Need to Be Rectified This Summer

Transfer Failures Will Need to Be Rectified This SummerClive Rose/Getty Images

Was a failed January transfer window, during which Liverpool failed to strengthen at all, the reason behind this late-season loss of momentum? Or were the seeds already sown last September?

With the obvious benefit of hindsight, we’ve seen that Liverpool’s shallow squad has been a big reason behind their failure to close down games or to put themselves out of sight when they’ve needed to.

Compared to the winter of 2013, when they signed Coutinho and Sturridge, this January was a major disappointment, but the warning signs were there after what has proved to be a weak summer of 2013.

Out of eight summer arrivals last year, which included the hapless Aspas, Moses and Aly Cissokho (to name but three), only Simon Mignolet and Mamadou Sakho have managed to make themselves regular first-team options.

While the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian didn’t end up arriving at Anfield last summer due to the lack of Champions League football, Liverpool now have that on offer for next season.

With their competitors likely to splash the cash to bring in reinforcements of their own, the Reds face a pivotal summer ahead if they want to continue challenging at the top of the table for the foreseeable future.

 

Was This Liverpool’s Best Chance at a League Title?

Was This Liverpool's Best Chance at a League Title?

Clive Rose/Getty Images

It is perhaps because of the strange nature of this season, where seemingly most big teams faced a transitional year, that the Premier League has played out to be such an open and exciting competition.

But it is also that same reason that might result in major strengthening by all of Liverpool’s rivals ahead of next season, and they may well face keener competition by the time the new season starts in August, especially with the financial might of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.

In hindsight, will this have been Liverpool’s best chance at a league title for many years to come? There are those who argue that Rodgers has already done an excellent job with the limited resources he has and that the only way for the Reds is up, but the nature of this season will also surely have been a factor in their lofty position.

Mathematically speaking, it’s still possible for Steven Gerrard to lift the Premier League trophy this Sunday, but that would require major favors from Aston Villa and West Ham United, both of whom are to visit the Etihad Stadium.

The tears and general despondence shown by Suarez and Co. when Mark Clattenburg blew his whistle on Monday showed that the players themselves might be thinking the same.

 

Tony Pulis Will Surely Now Win Manager of the Year

Tony Pulis Will Surely Now Win Manager of the Year

 Clive Rose/Getty Images

One of the side narratives leading up to the match was the battle between Rodgers and Pulis for the Manager of the Year award.

After Suarez scooped both the Players’ Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year accolades, all the attention on individual prizes turned to Selhurst Park.

For 78 minutes, it looked as if Rodgers would win on the day, putting the pressure back on Manchester City and reigniting Liverpool’s hopes for the title. Then in 12 minutes, Pulis wrestled the match back in his grasp, in the process changing the title race and the destiny of the Manager of the Year award.

For so long branded as a negative manager, Pulis deserves credit for bringing on Gayle, Glenn Murray and Thomas Ince in a bid to turn the match around when he would’ve been forgiven for throwing on defensive additions.

Pulis‘ transformation of Palace’s fortunes and securing of their Premier League status have rightly attracted many plaudits—but Rodgers’ taking of Liverpool from seventh to title challengers needs to be recognized as well.

 

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

It Ain't Over Till It's Over

 Alex Livesey/Getty Images

If Liverpool fans are despondent about losing the league title already, however, a quick glance at the Premier League table suggests that there is still some hope.

They will be requiring help from Aston Villa or West Ham United if they are to salvage the title, but the reality is that Manchester City still have two matches to play to confirm a title win.

If the Reds beat Newcastle United at Anfield next week, who knows what could happen…

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Norwich vs. Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Nervy Win

A brace from Raheem Sterling and a close-range finish from Luis Suarez were enough to hand Premier League title-chasing Liverpool a victory over relegation-threatened Norwich City, who put up a valiant effort and scored via Gary Hooper and Robert Snodgrass in a 3-2 thriller at Carrow Road on Sunday.
Sterling opened the scoring after just a few minutes into the match with a peach of a long-range strike, before his cross was perfectly placed to find Suarez, who finished for his 12th Premier League goal against the Canaries.
Hooper pounced on an unconvincing piece of goalkeeping from Simon Mignolet to give the hosts a deserved goal after a period of sustained pressure in the second half, before Sterling ran the length of the field to score a second, albeit via a deflection.

Snodgrass’ emphatic header gave Norwich renewed hope, but the final whistle sounded with the Reds notching an 11th straight victory to go five points above second-placed Chelsea and nine above Manchester City, who have two games in hand.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s nervy but important win on Sunday. Enjoy and have your say in the comments below.

 

Raheem Sterling, Rising Star

Raheem Sterling, Rising Star
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s victory on Sunday was all about Raheem Sterling: He scored two goals—the first a sumptuous moment of brilliance, the second a result of perseverance—and provided a telling cross for Luis Suarez.

Sterling’s brace brought him to nine goals this Premier League season, his first full season in senior-level football—if this even counts as a “full” season, given his irregular game time at the beginning of the campaign.Getting to double figures for the season is a reflection of just one of the many areas that he has massively improved in the past few months. Add his strength on the ball and admirable defensive tenacity, and Liverpool have one of the most complete wingers in all of England.

To think that he is still 19 years old. If he continues in the same vein, Sterling could go down as one of Liverpool’s best ever.

 

Questionable Defending Once Again from Liverpool

Questionable Defending Once Again from Liverpool
Michael Regan/Getty Images 

When Liverpool surged two goals up in the first half, their fans, and even their players, could have been forgiven for thinking that this would turn out to be another multi-goal rout—and perhaps Suarez would be able to extend his hat-trick record against Norwich.

Not so. Liverpool’s own defending caused themselves so much trouble in the end.Credit must be given to Norwich for coming out of their half-time team talk reinvigorated, and they went at the visitors with a sense of renewed purpose and confidence.

But Simon Mignolet’s punch was far from convincing, which led to Gary Hooper’s goal. Meanwhile, Jon Flanagan should have done way better as a defender who was tasked with marking Robert Snodgrass, a winger, on a routine header from a cross.

Norwich’s pressing also forced Liverpool into numerous hesitant clearances from the back, which put the Reds’ back line under necessary pressure.

 

Brendan Rodgers, Pragmatist?

Brendan Rodgers, Pragmatist?
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesWhen Brendan Rodgers sent on Daniel Agger for Joe Allen late in the second half, it might be looked back upon as a key milestone in his career as Liverpool boss.

Long known for his philosophical and visionary approach to football, he changed tack and sent on an extra body in defence, looking to stifle Norwich’s growing momentum rather than pushing his team forward.Norwich wrestled the game back from Liverpool’s hands, eventually dominating the corner count, overtaking the visitors in terms of shots and even challenging the possession count, after a first half that saw Liverpool play like they were the home team.

But make no mistake: Rodgers will be delighted with the three points from Carrow Road and might even discard everything else. His newfound pragmatism is a sure sign that Liverpool are challenging for top honors right at the business end of the season.

 

Too Little, Too Late for Norwich City?

Too Little, Too Late for Norwich City?
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesThat Rodgers turned to Agger to shore up his defence late on against Norwich—a team Liverpool have recently enjoyed a stellar record against—showed everything about how the Canaries played on Sunday.

While their first-half display was far from convincing, they came out of the dressing room after half-time full of energy, confidence and attacking verve and took the game to Liverpool every opportunity they had.

Having spent last summer shelling out for new and highly rated acquisitions like Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer, Norwich City were supposed to finish more toward the mid-table places than toward the foot of the Premier League table.

Instead, they have struggled to find any sort of consistency all season, which has led to their current precarious position and the recent sacking of Chris Hughton.

Their effort against Liverpool was commendable, but with four mammoth fixtures against Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United to finish off their season, Norwich might have found their energy a little too late in the campaign.

 

Reds’ Lack of Squad Depth Highlighted

Reds’ Lack of Squad Depth Highlighted
Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesYet again, this result might be yet another hard-fought performance that title winners “need to grind out despite not playing well,” as the cliche goes, but also yet again, this result highlights just how shallow Liverpool’s squad depth actually is.

Without Daniel Sturridge, they relied on Raheem Sterling to provide an attacking thrust and a driving edge, and while the No. 31 provided the match-winning moments for the Reds, late substitute Victor Moses offered nothing to show that he was once considered one of the best attacking prospects in all of England.Without Jordan Henderson, Liverpool lacked a meaningful and forceful presence in the final third of the pitch—a midfield runner who could transition their play into attack and make useful runs into the box.

In his place, Lucas offered nothing of note besides a few clumsy fouls and a shocking miss at the end of the match after Luis Suarez set up him with a golden chance to bring the visitors 4-2 up.

While Suarez has proved that he has the quality to lead the line as Liverpool’s lone striker, it might turn out that Henderson will be their biggest miss due to his suspension.

 

Liverpool vs. Chelsea Is the Biggest Game This Season

Liverpool vs. Chelsea Is the Biggest Game This Season
Michael Regan/Getty Images 

Saturday’s monumental result at Stamford Bridge, where Gus Poyet’s Sunderland delivered a landmark 2-1 away win (which might yet impact Norwich’s survival status this season), cast the spotlight squarely on Liverpool, who responded accordingly (if not at all emphatically).

Five points separate Chelsea and Liverpool with three matches left to play, while the Reds lead third-placed Manchester City by nine points—though Manuel Pellegrini’s side have two matches in hand.Steven Gerrard said in his post-match interview after the breathless victory over Manchester City that Norwich City would be Liverpool’s biggest game of the season.

While the Liverpool hierarchy will carry the same narrative through the remaining three games, Chelsea’s visit to Anfield next weekend is undoubtedly the match of the season.

It will set the tone for the rest of the title race, and while Liverpool have plenty to look forward to at Anfield and on the back of a stellar winning run, Jose Mourinho has enjoyed an excellent record against the Reds in the league over the years—and his midfield will pose a considerable threat to a Henderson-less Liverpool.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

West Ham United 1-2 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Tense Win

Two Steven Gerrard penalties were enough to give Liverpool a precious win over West Ham United at Upton Park on Sunday, as the Reds climbed back to the top of the Premier League table with five matches to go.

James Tomkins’ handball against Luis Suarez and Hammers goalkeeper Adrian’s foul on Jon Flanagan gave Gerrard the opportunity to notch a brace from the spot, while Liverpool’s goals were sandwiched by a Guy Demel finish as Andy Carroll’s foul on Simon Mignolet went unnoticed.

It was a cagey affair, with Sam Allardyce’s men displaying yet again their infamous physical style of football in a valiant attempt to stifle the creativity and fluidity of Brendan Rodgers’ side. But the visitors did enough to hold on for all three points.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s tense win over West Ham. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

A Show of Resilience from the Reds

A Show of Resilience from the Reds

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Not every match this season can be a four-goal demolition like Liverpool’s emphatic win over Tottenham Hotspur just a week ago, but it’s not the first time the Reds have ground out a much-needed win.

Away victories against the likes of Fulham and Stoke City come to mind, and Brendan Rodgers can rightly feel proud of his charges after another battling display at a traditionally difficult ground to visit.

It was far from vintage Liverpool, as West Ham’s closing down and clearing of their lines were enough to stifle the visitors’ attack. But Liverpool’s patience and insistence at finding the right moment and space to break through the Hammers defence yielded the two all-important penalties.

Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho—starting in place of the injured Daniel Agger—put on a show of commanding defending against the expected aerial bombardment of West Ham, and together with substitute Kolo Toure, they held on despite a nervy ending at Upton Park.

 

Steven Gerrard, the Coolest Customer in Town

Steven Gerrard, the Coolest Customer in Town

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

After all these years, where, still, would Liverpool be without Steven Gerrard?

His brace from the spot made it double digits for the Reds skipper this season from penalties alone, and they also took him past Kenny Dalglish in the Liverpool all-time scoring charts.

Besides the composure he displayed in dispatching two excellently clinical penalties, Gerrard also showed an ever-increasing ease in his newfound holding midfield role, as he dictated play from deep within the Liverpool half.

It was his sumptuous cross-field pass, of course, that set Luis Suarez on his way to winning the visitors’ first penalty. But it was all down to Gerrard after that to make sure they took their chances.

As usual, he delivered with aplomb.

 

Contrasting Fortunes for ‘SAS’

Contrasting Fortunes for 'SAS'

Julian Finney/Getty Images

It’s a testament to Luis Suarez’s brilliant form this season that his performance on Sunday could be considered disappointing, despite him winning Liverpool’s first penalty and hitting the crossbar twice.

But by the standards of any Premier League striker, Suarez already put in a blinder of a shift up front for Liverpool on Sunday, and his two audacious efforts—both of which hit the Hammers crossbar—deserved to go in from the sheer brilliance of his improvisation.

By contrast, Daniel Sturridge’s quiet form has continued for a second week running. A subdued performance against Tottenham last weekend was followed by an uninspiring display on Sunday, featuring a few hurried shots that he would normally have buried.

While a fit and firing Suarez should be more than enough for Premier League defences to deal with—especially with a confident and ever-developing Raheem Sterling alongside him—Brendan Rodgers could do with a resurgent Daniel Sturridge for the end-of-season run-in.

Starting with the titular clash against Manchester City next week.

 

Once Again, the Referee Takes Center Stage

Once Again, the Referee Takes Center Stage

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Not for the first time this season, the match referee has grabbed the spotlight in a Liverpool match.

On this occasion, it was Anthony Taylor, who appeared to have overruled his linesman and awarded Guy Demel’s goal right on the stroke of half-time.

Andy Carroll’s flagrant punch at Simon Mignolet’s head was apparently spotted by the linesman, who seemed to have flagged right away for an infringement of the goalkeeper, but Taylor ruled the goal to be legitimate, much to Liverpool’s chagrin.

Ultimately, it didn’t make too much of a difference to the end result, but it could’ve been a decision to derail the Reds’ title challenge.

And that’s not even mentioning a contentious decision to award Liverpool a penalty after Adrian’s challenge on Jon Flanagan.

 

West Ham Fans Have Every Right to Expect Better

West Ham Fans Have Every Right to Expect Better

Julian Finney/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, Upton Park rang out in boos despite West Ham beating Hull City 2-1, which was met with derision by Sam Allardyce, as reported by BBC Sport.

It was alleged at the time, according to Jacob Steinberg of The Guardian, that the Hammers supporters were fed up with Allardyce’s direct and physical playing style, and on current evidence, perhaps the West Ham faithful have a point.

With the backs-to-the-wall defending that they employed in a home fixture and the rough playing style they adopted against the Liverpool defence, West Ham’s performance certainly didn’t make for any entertaining viewing.

For the self-styled “Academy of Football,” West Ham’s current approach doesn’t seem in line with their history and traditions—but they’ve practically secured their all-important Premier League status for another season.

 

Liverpool Have Just Enough to Return to the Summit

Liverpool Have Just Enough to Return to the Summit

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

With five matches to go, Liverpool find themselves back at the top of the table after a Premier League weekend that saw both Manchester City and Chelsea notch convincing wins.

Liverpool are currently on 74 points—two ahead of second-placed Chelsea—and on a nine-match winning run, which makes next Sunday’s match against Manchester City all the more pivotal to either side’s title hopes this season.

That Liverpool have discovered a newfound mental strength and resoluteness has been a tried and tested theory this season, but they will need to display the kind of rearguard action that they did this Sunday for the rest of the campaign if they are to come out on top.

The underlying narrative doesn’t change, though: Win all their remaining games, and Liverpool will win the league.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Liverpool 4-0 Tottenham Hotspur: 6 Things We Learned from Anfield Rout

A Younes Kaboul own goal and goals from Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson handed Liverpool an impressive 4-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Sunday, which saw the Reds climb back to the top of the Premier League once again.

Another flying start by Brendan Rodgers’ side saw Raheem Sterling combine well with Glen Johnson down the Liverpool right, forcing Kaboul to turn the ball into his own net. Suarez’s excellent left-footed finish after putting Michael Dawson under pressure deservedly doubled the Reds’ lead on 25 minutes.

Coutinho’s excellent low drive from range further extended the hosts’ dominance on 55 minutes, before Henderson’s free kick from the left flank evaded everyone in the Spurs box and sealed another Liverpool rout over Tottenham, following their five-goal demolition job at White Hart Lane back in December.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s excellent win. Enjoy, and let us know your thoughts below.

 

Impressive Rearguard Action by the Reds

Impressive Rearguard Action by the Reds

Jon Super

Take your pick from two well-worn cliches in the sports world: “The best defence is offence” or “Defence wins championships.”

Whichever your preference—and while Sunday’s result by no means confirmed anything in terms of the Premier League title race just yet—Liverpool showed both offensive drive and defensive steel against Tottenham, much like the reverse fixture in December.

Jon Flanagan bounced back from a quiet couple of weeks with a performance full of heart, commitment and excellently timed tackles, while Glen Johnson put in an admirable defensive shift, albeit against a toothless Spurs left.

Simon Mignolet was on hand to make a few crucial but routine stops—including an excellent left-handed parry of Christian Eriksen’s deflected shot in the dying minutes—to keep what was a rare clean sheet for Liverpool this season.

Martin Skrtel had one of his almost flawless performances featuring a few blockbuster last-ditch blocks. Even Daniel Agger, normally in the “cool, calm and collected” school of defending, saw fit to put in a few flying blocks of his own.

The clean defensive performance, which was admittedly due to a disappointing Spurs display, will be one of the key points stressed by Brendan Rodgers to replicate in the end-of-season run-in.

 

Liverpool Might Just Have the Best Right Flank in the Premier League

Liverpool Might Just Have the Best Right Flank in the Premier League

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

But enough about the defence: Besides keeping a second successive clean sheet against Tottenham this season, Liverpool have again hit four goals with no reply in the Premier League this season, making it 11 matches this season where they have scored at least four goals.

Even more encouraging for both Rodgers and Liverpool fans alike will be Glen Johnson’s return to fitness—and, it seems, to a level almost touching his flying best. It was Johnson’s run behind the Spurs defence that led to Liverpool’s early opening goal and one that fully illustrated his valuable contributions to the Reds attack.

And in reverting to his tried and trusted 4-3-3, Brendan Rodgers started Raheem Sterling on the right, which paid dividends both in the final third and also on the defensive end. The young winger, who by now must surely be on the plane to Brazil this summer, was a constant menace to the Tottenham defence, while a physical duel with Mousa Dembele before his substitution—which he won—was a sign of his growing confidence and maturity.

Johnson’s dovetailing with Sterling down the right made it once again Liverpool’s preferred attacking outlet, even while the hapless Kyle Naughton started as right-back on the opposite side of the pitch.

Pablo Zabaleta and Seamus Coleman, step aside—if Johnson and Sterling keep up their performances on both ends of the pitch, they’ll comfortably win any award for the Premier League’s best right flank.

 

Familiarity Breeds Success

Familiarity Breeds Success

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

When Mamadou Sakho’s return from injury was announced, Liverpool fans would’ve been forgiven for wanting him to go straight back into the starting XI, with Daniel Agger not being at his domineering best this season.

When Lucas made a first-team comeback as well, many wanted him to return as the midfield anchor, releasing Steven Gerrard of his holding and controlling duties at the base of the Reds midfield and allowing the captain to push further up the park.

Instead, Rodgers has chosen to stick by and large with a starting lineup that has served him so well, if not entirely in defensive solidity then at least in results, only sacrificing Joe Allen for Sterling.

Besides the Allen/Sterling change, this was the same lineup that started Liverpool’s previous few victories, allowing them to have built up a winning momentum and a growing sense of confidence, which was increasingly apparent as the match wore on.

In sticking with a winning team, despite having other strong contenders on the bench, Rodgers has gone with familiarity, both as a sign of his confidence in his team and as a reward to those players who have served him well amidst the previous injury problems.

 

Tactical Flexibility Now a Liverpool Hallmark

Tactical Flexibility Now a Liverpool Hallmark

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It was the Allen/Sterling change, though, that reflected a return to the 4-3-3 formation that had been used to such excellent effect at times this season. (Lest we forget, the 4-4-2 diamond was, of course, a formation ushered in partly out of desperation.)

Liverpool played like they’d never even thought about veering away from their original 4-3-3, such was the fluency in their build-up and possession play, while Coutinho once again impressed as the most advanced member of the midfield trio.

Not that they played the entire match as a 4-3-3, though: Rodgers’ two substitutions between the 64th and 70th minutes meant that Allen and Lucas did come on to replace Coutinho and Gerrard, and Sterling was pushed back into the middle to revert to the 4-4-2 diamond.

In doing so, the home side displayed yet another trait it’s developed this season: a tactical flexibility that has allowed it to approach different opponents in different ways.

The Liverpool players have become so comfortable with each other and with Rodgers’ possession-based attacking philosophy that they’ve taken every formation change almost like a duck to water, and this can only bode well for the rest of their title-chasing season.

And it paid off spectacularly.

 

Tottenham Hotspur Are Stuck in Limbo

Tottenham Hotspur Are Stuck in Limbo

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Spare a thought for Tottenham Hotspur, as not only did their players not seem to have a game plan in mind, but their head coach also seemed to have lost his fiery passion for which he’s been so famous.

A 60th-minute double substitution aside, Tim Sherwood didn’t appear to take any initiative to improve his side’s fortunes, and he cut a lone figure in the Spurs director’s box as the match wilted away from a Tottenham point of view.

According to BBC Sport, Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal is reportedly on his way to White Hart Lane as Spurs’ new manager after this summer’s World Cup. Judging from Sherwood’s demeanor, he might well feel like a dead man walking, with his opportunity to impress at the Spurs helm limited in the end to less than a full season.

In the meantime, however, a host of Tottenham players have been frozen out—the likes of Sandro, Mousa Dembele and Paulinho have been left out in favor of the youngster Nabil Bentaleb—and the lack of cohesion on the Anfield pitch on Sunday will have made for some jarring watching for Spurs fans.

Having spent in excess of £100 million in the wake of Gareth Bale’s departure, Tottenham were supposed to mount at least a strong challenge for fourth. Instead, they’ve lost all their league matches against the Premier League top four this season (barring a home draw against Chelsea in late September) and their season is well and truly unraveling.

Plenty of work to be done in the summer.

 

It’s All in Liverpool’s Hands Now

It’s All in Liverpool’s Hands Now

Jon Super

By notching their 22nd win of the Premier League season, Liverpool return to the top of the table in emphatic fashion, two points above Chelsea after the Blues’ shocking loss at Crystal Palace on Saturday.

While Manchester City have two games in hand and would yet reclaim the top spot with two wins out of two, the reality remains that Liverpool’s fortunes for the season are entirely in their own hands now.

From this point forward, if the Reds win all six of the remaining fixtures on their schedule, they will be crowned Premier League champions since both Chelsea and City have yet to visit Anfield.

For the first time in many a season, Liverpool only have themselves to worry about, without having to hope for rivals dropping points before they can look to capitalize.

Brendan Rodgers will know that this is a key advantage for his team in the run-in, but as usual, he will be stressing the need to keep calm and focus on the next game.

Bring on West Ham United.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Film Focus: Breaking Down Liverpool’s Impressive 3-0 Win over Manchester United

Two Steven Gerrard penalties and a Luis Suarez finish handed Liverpool an impressive 3-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. And it could’ve been much more.

Besides Steven Gerrard’s performance, which, despite missing his third penalty of the night, was more than enough to see him awarded the Man of the Match, there were a number of interesting talking points from the match.

First was, of course, the sheer number of penalty kicks that referee Mark Clatternburg could have called over the 90 minutes. Marouane Fellaini’s first-half trip on Luis Suarez was let go, while Michael Carrick’s second-half swipe of Daniel Sturridge’s feet after Gerrard’s missed penalty was also not called.

Then there were the decisions that Liverpool perhaps got away with, namely the lack of contact over the visitors’ third penalty, which saw Nemanja Vidic sent off for a fourth time in this fixture for a tackle that didn’t actually connect—and a Glen Johnson handball inside the Liverpool box.

And then, there was David Moyes’ curious decision-making. It wasn’t limited to just deploying record signing and specialist No. 10 Juan Mata on the wings again. It was the lack of instant reaction from the United manager that saw his first substitutions take place on 76 minutes, a full half-hour after the hosts went 2-0 down.

Away from these three general observations, we felt there were four instances that symbolized the match and its eventual outcome. Let’s take a more detailed look at four scenarios that occurred throughout the match.

 

Robin van Persie, deep-lying playmaker?

That Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney have spectacularly failed to strike up a useful and threatening strike partnership this season has not gone unnoticed—but their lack of interplay on Sunday will have been very disappointing for Manchester United fans.

More alarming, however, was the manner in which van Persie and Rooney tried to link up with each other (or at least make it seem like they were).

So isolated was van Persie up front that he often drifted out to the left wing in pursuit of the ball, depriving United of any forward presence up front and in theory allowing the supporting midfielders—and Rooney—to charge forward.

But after so many jokes at the Red Devils’ expense in recent months about their crossing-only attacking play, Sunday was yet another exhibition of why their incessant crossing is so unfruitful.

 

BBC Match of the DayAs we see in this first-half shot, van Persie has come so deep that he’s literally on the halfway line (yellow circle on the left). Rooney’s charge forward (yellow circle on the right) brings him level with the last man in the Liverpool defence—Daniel Agger—and there are a full three United players between van Persie and Rooney that the former can look to go through.

Instead, his next move is to play a cross-field ball that ends up cleared away all too easily by the Liverpool rearguard. Not a very inspiring attacking approach.

The sad thing was, this was only one of the many times this sequence occurred.

 

Manchester United’s undisciplined defending

By our count, Liverpool could’ve easily had five penalties called on Sunday—a remarkable stat given that their first, after Rafael da Silva’s handball against Luis Suarez, was the first penalty conceded at Old Trafford in the Premier League since December 2011.

While Rafael’s handball was all down to individual carelessness (and he could arguably have been issued a second yellow card), the second penalty was very much down to a collective lack of discipline in the United defence.

In the immediate buildup to the penalty, Jordan Henderson deserves much of the credit for spotting an excellent Joe Allen run into the box and then producing an exquisite flick over the top to find his fellow midfielder. Allen’s use of the body allows him to take control of the ball, which puts the United defence under pressure.

But let’s take a look at the positional errors that the hosts have committed in this single piece of defensive play.

 

BBC Match of the DayThis freeze frame, taken right as Henderson is about to release the ball to Allen, comes on the back of a long ball over the top towards Raheem Sterling on the right side of the penalty box, where he is only tracked by Nemanja Vidic.

United left-back Patrice Evra (blue circle on the left) arrives late on the scene and is dragged back by the ball, while Marouane Fellaini (blue circle on the right) also follows the ball into a zone very much out of his own. Evra and Fellaini have almost switched positions here—bear in mind that Evra should have been tracking Sterling and Fellaini, as the defensive midfielder, should have picked up Henderson or Allen.

These positional errors leave centre-backs Phil Jones and Vidic exposed and under pressure from Allen’s run, as Vidic (yellow circle on the right) is also dragged toward the ball and thus behind Allen’s run (white arrow).

Jones’ disadvantageous starting point (yellow circle on the left) means that he could’ve left Vidic come into Allen’s path (red box) and tackled on his right foot, but the former’s rash movement bundles Allen over and concedes the penalty.

2-0 to the visitors.

 

The movement and magic of Suarez and Sturridge

It’s a testament to how badly United fared that Liverpool didn’t even really get out of their first gear over the 90 minutes and still came away with a comprehensive win.

Arguably the most impressive (and productive) piece of forward play from the Reds’ league-leading strike force came when Luis Suarez took advantage of a Daniel Sturridge mishit and finished with aplomb past David de Gea to take the score to 3-0.

 

BBC Match of the DayAs we see in this freeze frame, the dotted red line represents the path Sturridge would undoubtedly have wanted his shot to have taken. If that shot would’ve gone through, David de Gea, who had just forced the corner from which this play started after a brilliant stop from Luis Suarez at point-blank range, could’ve been equal to it, or perhaps parried it out for another corner.

Instead it hits Phil Jones and lands at Suarez’s feet, who controls and finishes it with his left foot past de Gea.

That this play started from a corner was instrumental in the buildup to the goal. Martin Skrtel had stayed forward after the corner and made his presence felt in the penalty area: Jones (yellow circle) has his attentions occupied by Skrtel.

Patrice Evra (blue circle) is once again in no-man’s land as he is woefully out of position once more, while none of United’s players tracked the brilliant run that Suarez timed to perfection. As a result, Jones is caught in two minds, and by the time the ball arrives at Suarez’s feet, Jones and all of his defensive colleagues are nowhere near Liverpool’s No. 7, who couldn’t miss from there.

While the goal ultimately came about in a fortuitous manner, with the ball ricocheting off Jones’ legs to find Suarez, the manner of the runs and the positioning in the buildup suggest that this goal could very easily have been conjured deliberately.

If Sturridge had spotted Suarez’s run and decided to play him in with a deft pass, Suarez would still have been in with an easy finish. More importantly, while Sturridge inadvertently turned creator here, it’s not difficult at all to envision a role reversal here, with Suarez pulling the strings and feeding Sturridge through with an exquisite pass.

The fact that both of Liverpool’s strikers could have played either part in this goal shows exactly why the Reds are increasingly far and away the most prolific scorers in the Premier League.

 

Liverpool still have a midfield problem

With all this said, however, we will also pick one scenario that focuses on the deficiencies that Liverpool still have, even if it wasn’t at all exploited during the game. It’s just as food for thought and a note of caution for Reds fans.

 

BBC Match of the DayThe scene shown here is a Manchester United attack—their only shot on target during the entire 90 minutes—toward the end of the first half, from which Wayne Rooney forced a good reactive save from Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.

Toward the bottom of the screen, Rafael is on the charge with the ball on the right flank. Right before this scene, Rafael’s good combination play with Adnan Januzaj leaves Jon Flanagan for dead, and the Liverpool defender is now forced to chase back after missing his initial tackle (blue circle and arrow).

As Daniel Agger is drawn out of position to mark the supporting Januzaj and Martin Skrtel is trying to maintain a presence in the penalty box, it’s now left to Steven Gerrard to track back and cover for Flanagan’s positional mishap (yellow circle and arrow).

However, Gerrard’s run toward United’s right means that his customary central defensive midfield zone has been left vacant, leaving a huge gap in the middle (red box) for Wayne Rooney (white circle) to storm into.

Rafael does subsequently find Rooney on the edge of the area, and the United forward unleashes a shot that Mignolet parries.

Fortunately for Liverpool, they held out to end the half 1-0 up and scored immediately after the second half.

From there on out, it was just a matter of wrapping up the three points. But as convincing as Liverpool looked on Sunday, they still have some work to do on the training ground.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Liverpool 4-3 Swansea: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Thrilling Win at Anfield

Liverpool 4-3 Swansea: 6 Things We Learned from Reds' Thrilling Win at Anfield
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A seven-goal thriller at Anfield on Sunday saw Liverpool race into a 2-0 lead with goals from Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson, only for Swansea City to peg them back. A second from Sturridge took the Reds up at half-time, only for a Wilfried Bony penalty to level things up after the break, before Henderson scored the winner.

This was both an exhibition of a swashbuckling attack and a display of dreadful defending from the home side, while Swansea’s enterprising efforts and relentless energy troubled Brendan Rodgers’ side throughout the 90 minutes.

But a brace each from Sturridge and Henderson were just enough to see the visitors off as the Reds secured an important three points after results elsewhere this weekend had gone the way of the Premier League top three.

Here are six things we learned about Liverpool’s thrilling win over Swansea. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

A Defensive Shambles

A Defensive Shambles
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

For the first time this season, Liverpool conceded three goals at home: Once again, it was their potent attack that bailed them out from an abysmal defensive performance.

It seems that the Reds defence struggle badly against big centre-forwards: They’ve been troubled by the likes of Christian Benteke in the past couple of seasons, and on Sunday it was Swansea’s Wilfried Bony who asked plenty of questions of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger.

From Brendan Rodgers’ 63rd-minute substitution of Agger for the recently hapless Kolo Toure, it was fair to say that the vice-captain had failed to impress and that Bony had won the battle.

Not that Skrtel fared much better though. After a few months’ worth of shirt-pulling and tugging inside the penalty box had gone unnoticed, referee Mike Jones gave a decision that had been coming for a long time: a penalty on Skrtel.

In front of the defence, Steven Gerrard had one of his off days in the holding midfield role, as his tendency to roam forward to push the team on left gaping holes in the Reds’ final third. Jonjo Shelvey’s goal came as a result of the space afforded to him.

While Glen Johnson had a decent game upon his return from injury, only Jon Flanagan should emerge from the game with any credit. He grew in stature as the game wore on, and his work rate and commitment to the cause were crucial as Liverpool held on for the victory.

 

Contrasting Fortunes for Liverpool’s Strikers

Contrasting Fortunes for Liverpool’s Strikers
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Two goals and an assist for Daniel Sturridge made it 10 goals in his last eight league games, setting a record for Liverpool and opening a gap over Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero in the Premier League scoring charts.

Sturridge played the majority of the match on the right-hand side of the Liverpool front three, but his awareness and positioning to race clear in the 2nd minute and to head the home side back into the lead in the 36th minute had all the markings of a top Premier League striker.

Contrast that with Luis Suarez, who, despite putting in an exquisite cross for Sturridge’s second goal, failed to score once again. He’s only scored one goal in his last six league games, a far cry from his sizzling form in December.

As long as the SAS partnership remains productive and Liverpool continue to rack up the goals—and more importantly, the points—Suarez’s barren run will go relatively unnoticed, but this is not an ideal time for the No. 7’s shooting boots to go missing.

Liverpool fans and Suarez himself will look to Manchester United’s Robin van Persie as a study in “bouncebackability”: The United striker went through a mini-drought in the middle of last season as well, before storming back to take them to the league title.

 

Jordan Henderson Steps Up

Jordan Henderson Steps Up
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Almost three years since he signed for Liverpool, Jordan Henderson finally looked like he was worth the £16 million Kenny Dalglish had splashed out to sign him from Sunderland.

Having stepped up to the fore over the Christmas period when Steven Gerrard was injured, Henderson had quietened down just a bit and retreated into more of a comfort zone when his captain returned.

But when the situation at Anfield on Sunday called for a leader to rise to the cause, it was Henderson who responded with a stirring performance.

Two goals, a constant box-to-box presence, frequent marauding runs into Swansea’s penalty area and a match-winning goal: This was a performance fitting of Steven Gerrard at his finest.

It is just as well that Henderson has rediscovered his form, confidence and assertiveness on the pitch as Liverpool look to finish their Premier League season strongly.

With Gerrard taking more of a backseat role these days, it is up to Henderson to carry on his good work and affect his inspirational leadership on this Liverpool side.

Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool fans will be looking for more of the same in the weeks to come.

 

An Impressive Cameo from Joe Allen

An Impressive Cameo from Joe Allen
Jon Super/Associated Press

In hindsight, Rodgers made an inspired change just before the hour mark when he sent Joe Allen on for Raheem Sterling.

Swansea had equalized through a Wilfried Bony penalty, and Liverpool were looking just a bit jaded and nervous in the midfield, where Raheem Sterling’s influence had waned with the visitors’ rise in confidence.

Allen brought both composure and energetic pressing to the Reds midfield, both of which were integral to the home side keeping and recycling the ball, as well as giving Swansea a tougher time with their own possession play.

Allen took turns with Henderson going forward to the support the attack with his touches of the ball in advanced areas crucial to Liverpool’s attacking build-up.

As Liverpool enter the final 11 games of the season with less-than-desirable strength in depth, Allen provided a timely reminder of his qualities and potential worth to the side as a different option in the midfield.

However, his fellow substitute, Victor Moses, made the opposite impression with a lethargic display of poor invention and even poorer work rate.

If Allen made himself a real contender for the first team in the months to come, Moses surely moved himself further away from it with a disappointing 15 minutes off the bench.

 

An Encouraging Display from Swansea City

An Encouraging Display from Swansea City
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Garry Monk will have left Anfield ruing his side’s own defensive mistakes, as Swansea City had the chance to take a point or even all three home to south Wales.

But as the first side to score three goals at Anfield this season, Swansea will have been encouraged by their display: A show of energetic pressing and tidy passing put plenty of pressure on Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Michu’s loss for the majority of the season has been a huge setback for the Swans, but in his stead Wilfried Bony has started to look like the Premier League force he threatened to be in his first couple of months at the Liberty Stadium.

Strong, quick and clinical, Bony’s hold-up play caused plenty of problems for the Reds defence and opened up space for his midfield colleagues to roam forward and shoot on goal.

As Swansea find themselves much closer to bottom-placed Fulham than to ninth-placed Southampton, their first priority is to remain in the Premier League for the foreseeable future.

But as long as Monk continues in this mould, they should be looking at far more than staying in the league; they should be aiming at least to finish 10th.

 

Liverpool March on in Not-So-Impressive Fashion

Liverpool March on in Not-so-Impressive Fashion
Jon Super/Associated Press

When a Premier League side ships three goals to an opponent, “marching on” isn’t exactly the right term to use in the post-match reports, even if they’ve scored four themselves.

Yet “march on” is what Liverpool continue to do, and their nervy win highlighted attributes that they perhaps didn’t have previously: mental strength and a collective desire to finish in the top four.

Sunday was their ninth time scoring four or more goals in a Premier League game this season, and all three points in the bag, they have already equaled the number of wins they achieved last season—with 11 games to go.

Liverpool’s four-goal haul also makes them the highest-scoring side in the Premier League this season, overtaking Manchester City. No mean feat for a team that is still supposedly in a transitional season.

Their unconvincing defence will continue to leak goals, but as long as their attack continues to fire and they have big-game players coming up trumps, Liverpool may yet have further statements to make.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Fulham 2-3 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from the Reds’ Last-Gasp Win

Fulham 2-3 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from the Reds' Last-Gasp Win
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Steven Gerrard scored an stoppage-time penalty to earn Liverpool a hard-fought Premier League victory at Craven Cottage on Wednesday, as Fulham led twice before being pegged back by the Reds three times.

A comical error from Kolo Toure gave Fulham the lead via an own goal, before Gerrard launched a sumptuous through-ball for Daniel Sturridge to equalize before half-time.

Kieran Richardson seized on a defensive mishap to hand the Cottagers the lead just after the hour mark, before Philippe Coutinho again leveled matters with the aid of a deflection.

Sturridge’s speed on the turn saw Sascha Riether foul him inside the box in stoppage time, and Gerrard stepped up and finished with aplomb to hand the visitors all three points.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s last-gasp win over Fulham. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Problems Persist at the Back

Problems Persist at the Back
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Before we mention the positives from Liverpool’s win, we will first give credit to Fulham’s approach and attitude, as well as acknowledge the Reds’ weaknesses.

Rene Meulensteen’s side started the match not looking like a team currently bottom of the Premier League, and their constant pressing and runs at a nervy Liverpool defence meant that Kolo Toure’s own goal, while a dreadful error, was everything the home side deserved.

Lewis Holtby has proven to be an inspired signing in the January window by Fulham, as he was at the center of everything good about the Cottagers’ first-half play. Darren Bent, so often criticized for his work rate and for being merely a good finisher, looked a transformed player as he led the line up front.

Even as Liverpool started the second half on the front foot, picking up from how they had finished the first, their defence was still susceptible and looked a liability every time Fulham crossed the ball.

Martin Skrtel, coming off the back of a heroic two-goal salvo against Arsenal on Saturday, was nervous and hesitant in his positioning and clearances, and was at fault for Kieran Richardson’s equalizer.

The Reds continue to rack up the goals up front, but until Brendan Rodgers sorts out his defence, Liverpool fans may have plenty of nail-biters to come yet.

 

Steven Gerrard Is Still the Man for Liverpool

Steven Gerrard Is Still the Man for Liverpool
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Now onto the positives.

After all these years, Steven Gerrard is still the main man for Liverpool.

Having been written off as “past it” many times in the past couple of seasons, Gerrard has also been criticized in recent weeks for adapting slowly to a new role as the Reds’ holding midfielder.

But just because the captain has been pushed into a deeper position doesn’t mean his influence on Liverpool’s proceedings has waned a bit.

His through ball to set up Daniel Sturridge was a moment of brilliance fit to change any game, and the sort of split-second flash of inspiration only Gerrard seems to be capable of.

And what of his late, late penalty?

On Wednesday, as ever in the past decade, when Liverpool were in need of a winner in the 90th minute, up stepped Steven Gerrard to hand his side all three points.

It’s now seven goals and nine assists for the England skipper this season. Not too shabby at all.

 

Daniel Sturridge, Game-Changer

Daniel Sturridge, Game-Changer
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

There was a time when a whole match of anonymity and frustration would precede a breathtaking, all-important finish, and in the forms of Michael Owen and Fernando Torres, that would sit just fine with the Liverpool fans.

Daniel Sturridge has taken up that mantle.

Not as hard-working off the ball or mercurial on it as Luis Suarez, Sturridge has his own approach to being Liverpool’s main striker, one that requires him to be alert to every opportunity and ready to take every chance off the shoulders of the last defender.

Another game, another cool finish from Sturridge. Gerrard’s pass was a moment to savor, but Sturridge’s control and composure were what made the goal happen.

It’s now seven goals in seven consecutive league games for the No. 15 (a first for Liverpool), and 16 goals in 18 matches this season.

Have we mentioned his speed on the turn to win a penalty at the death?

 

A New Member Joins the Liverpool Makeover

A New Member Joins the Liverpool Makeover
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

When the fourth official’s board lit up on 82 minutes and Raheem Sterling was to come off, it wasn’t for a wing replacement in Victor Moses or an additional striker in Iago Aspas.

It was for No. 53, a little-known Portuguese prospect named Joao Carlos Teixeira, making his debut.

With 10 minutes left to play, Liverpool were level with Fulham, knowing that Tottenham Hotspur had just thumped Newcastle 4-0, and both Arsenal and Manchester United had dropped points in a 0-0 draw.

And it was Teixeira that Brendan Rodgers turned to.

Yet in those 10 minutes, it was clear to see why. The 21-year-old showed a calmness and composure on the ball to eclipse perhaps even that of Coutinho, while his passing and shooting on goal both showed signs of a young player confident in his own ability to influence a match.

Perhaps he didn’t play a direct part in Liverpool’s late clincher, but running out last-gasp winners in his senior debut will have done all the good in the world for Teixeira.

This is a young, young Liverpool side with an old head in Steven Gerrard leading the dressing room. Exciting times for Reds fans, even without looking at the league table.

 

Character and Mentality Now a Reds Hallmark

Character and Mentality Now a Reds Hallmark
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It is perhaps because of the youth and raw exuberance of this Liverpool team that Brendan Rodgers brought in the leadership of Kolo Toure last summer and pulled all stops to keep Steven Gerrard in the first team.

And it’s fair to say that they are reaping the benefits now, even despite Toure’s two high-profile errors in the space of 10 days.

The togetherness shown by the squad in recent weeks as Liverpool have stepped up their chase for the top four—and, whisper it quietly, in the title race—has been nothing short of impressive, and Rodgers deserves all the credit he can get for the mentality he has instilled in the Anfield dressing room.

With youngsters getting a chance on the pitch even in important games—see Brad Smith’s debut at Stamford Bridge in December, regardless of his performance, and Jordon Ibe’s cameo against Arsenal on Saturday—and a healthy mix of experience and energy, Rodgers is at the helm of a purring machine with all its parts humming in harmony.

What better to exhibit this togetherness than to see Iago Aspas, who would’ve been forgiven for sulking on the sidelines, leaping from the bench and yelling at the referee for a Coutinho foul at the death?

 

Liverpool Must Keep Their Feet on the Ground

Liverpool Must Keep Their Feet on the Ground
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

All the same, Liverpool have to keep a balanced sense of perspective and their feet firmly on the ground.

The last time they thrashed a rival in the 4-0 Merseyside derby demolition, they followed it up with a limp 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion. And for 90 minutes at Craven Cottage, it looked like they would follow up a 5-1 hammering of Arsenal with yet another two points dropped.

So in the context of the whole season, it may prove to have been to Liverpool’s benefit that they had to grind out this victory at Fulham.

As the old cliche goes, there are no easy games in the Premier League, and a hard-fought win at the league’s basement club has shown just that.

Next up are Swansea City at home and Southampton away, both sides who have posed real challenges to the Reds in recent seasons with their styles of play.

There will be plenty more opportunities to test Liverpool’s mettle, and every win from this point forward will be their biggest win of the season.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Demolition of Gunners

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned from Reds' Demolition of Gunners
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Two goals apiece from Martin Skrtel and Raheem Sterling, and another composed finish from Daniel Sturridge, handed Liverpool a 5-1 trouncing of Arsenal in the Premier League at Anfield on Saturday.

A ferocious performance from Brendan Rodgers’ squad started perfectly as Skrtel’s header gave them a lead within the first minute. He followed up with a brilliant header from a Steven Gerrard corner to double the Reds’ lead at 10 minutes.

Raheem Sterling then found himself on the end of a flowing Liverpool move and on the scoresheet, before Daniel Sturridge latched onto a glorious through-ball from Philippe Coutinho to score the hosts’ fourth.

After Sterling got himself a second—and Liverpool a fifth—Gerrard’s challenge on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain earned Arsenal a consolation penalty, with Gunners captain Mikel Arteta scoring from 12 yards.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s demolition of Arsenal on Saturday. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

The Curious Case of Liverpool’s Set Pieces

The Curious Case of Liverpool’s Set Pieces
Michael Regan/Getty Images

There were two set pieces within the first 10 minutes for Liverpool, and two goals, both created by Gerrard and scored by Skrtel.

So continues the curious case of Liverpool’s set pieces. How can a side known for being weak at defending set pieces be so prolific at scoring from them?

With 22 already notched, Liverpool have now scored more goals from set pieces (including penalties) than any other Premier League side this season (as of the end of the match). More than a third of the Reds’ 63 league goals this season have come from set pieces.

By contrast, they have conceded seven goals from set pieces, approaching a fourth of their 30 goals against, and that’s not counting penalties.

Week by week, Steven Gerrard continues to provide strong evidence that he is the Premier League’s finest set piece taker; today’s two assists today won’t have done that reputation any harm.

 

Raheem Sterling Continues His Rise to Prominence

Raheem Sterling Continues His Rise to Prominence
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Once in a while, a performance comes along that makes everyone stand up and take note of a new player coming of age. On Saturday, that was Raheem Sterling.

Sure, he got himself two goals, the first well taken and the second after a fortuitous parry from Wojciech Szczesny right back to him, but it wasn’t just about the double haul.

Not only did Sterling get into fantastic positions on the counterattack, but he didn’t for a second neglect his defensive duties and proved to be an important outlet on Liverpool’s flanks.

It was clear even from his first few months in English football that Sterling had more than just pace and dribbling about him, but since reestablishing himself in Brendan Rodgers’ team in December, he’s developed his footballing intelligence and taken more responsibility on the pitch.

To firmly establish himself as one of the best wingers in the Premier League, Sterling needs to further work on his finishing, to ensure that he gets the rewards from his excellent attacking play.

But will Feb. 8, 2014 prove to be the making of Raheem Sterling? Only time will tell, but his improvement so far suggests that he still has a long way to go yet.

 

Press the Midfield Like Your Lives Depend on It

Press the Midfield Like Your Lives Depend on It
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Saturday’s trouncing was all the more surprising, considering that Liverpool were quite comprehensively outplayed in November at the Emirates Stadium.

Skrtel’s early goal definitely made a difference, as it meant Arsenal had to chase the game right from the beginning, but the way the home side approached the match also had a telling influence on the outcome.

Whereas Aaron Ramsey powered his way through the Reds midfield time and again in November, this time Liverpool never allowed Arsenal to enjoy any time on the ball, as the entire midfield set about a frantic and relentless pressing game that forced errors and back passes from the Gunners’ midfield.

Jordan Henderson put in another famous workhorse shift, but it wasn’t just him: Luis Suarez defended from the front, Philippe Coutinho belied his slight frame with a performance of power and pace, and Sterling’s defensive work arguably outshone his attacking contributions.

This was Brendan Rodgers’ midfield blueprint blossoming on the pitch.

 

Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta Are Not a Title-Winning Midfield

Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta Are Not a Title-Winning Midfield
Michael Regan/Getty Images

With Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey both out of contention for Saturday’s clash, Arsenal’s midfield lacked bite, steel and energy.

Jack Wilshere was more petulant than probing, while Mikel Arteta’s lack of acceleration and pace on the turn proved an Achilles’ heel against the high-energy pressing game that the Liverpool midfield adopted.

With Wilshere showing his frustration via a few cynical fouls and failing to assert himself on a big stage, he showed that while he has the tools to become a great player, he still has a ways to mature and develop his mental game.

Ramsey has scored eight goals and provided six assists this season, contributing to almost 30 percent of Arsenal’s total league goal haul, and has been a big miss for Arsene Wenger’s side.

On Saturday, it was a fellow homegrown talent, Jordan Henderson, along with the previous holder of the “best box-to-box midfielder in the league” tag, Steven Gerrard, who formed the crux of a dominant midfield.

 

When Liverpool Are on Song, They Are Frighteningly Good

When Liverpool Are on Song, They Are Frighteningly Good
Michael Regan/Getty Images

In 13 home games this season, Liverpool have scored 38 Premier League goals, almost an average of three per game—and that’s including a draw and a loss.

They’ve scored four or more goals in eight league matches out of their 25 already played this season. Including a 5-0 rout and 4-0 Merseyside derby demolition of fellow top-four challengers Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, and now a 5-1 trouncing of a title hopeful.

In Luis Suarez (23 goals) and Daniel Sturridge (15), the Reds have the two highest-scoring players in the league. (Sturridge is tied with Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero.)

Simply put: When Liverpool are on song, they are frighteningly good. When the players carry out Rodgers’ pressing plans and passing game to perfection, Liverpool take some stopping.

Besides the aesthetically pleasing controlling approach that they are still perfecting game by game, they have now added the set piece and the counterattack to their arsenal.

What happens when they shore up their defence and boost their midfield?

 

Underdog Tag Suits Liverpool Perfectly

Underdog Tag Suits Liverpool Perfectly
Michael Regan/Getty Images

While Liverpool are now painted as favorites to finish in the top four, they still entered Saturday’s clash perhaps as underdogs considering the quality of their opposition.

Given the comprehensive manner of Arsenal’s defeat, just as they did after the Gunners’ loss to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, the attention may focus squarely on the weaknesses of Arsene Wenger’s team and how they may fail to win the title after all, leaving the spotlight firmly away from Liverpool.

That will suit Brendan Rodgers’ side just fine.

Liverpool have historically outperformed expectations when classed as underdogs—and given Manchester City’s draw at Norwich City this weekend, suddenly the Reds are just four points off third place.

That will probably slip under the radar for a few weeks yet, as the discussions revolve around Arsenal and City’s dips and Chelsea’s rise to the Premier League summit.

But if Liverpool keep plugging away and also winning those matches they’re favorites in, who knows what’s in store come May?

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

West Bromwich Albion 1-1 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Hawthorns Draw

West Bromwich Albion 1-1 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Hawthorns Draw
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Luis Suarez set up Daniel Sturridge for the opener, while Victor Anichebe capitalized on a Kolo Toure blunder for an equalizer, as relegation-threatened West Bromwich Albion held Champions League-chasing Liverpool 1-1 at the Hawthorns in the Premier League on Sunday.

The Baggies had started the game brightly, but the Reds took a well-deserved lead on 24 minutes and finished the first half strongly.

Pepe Mel’s half-time team talk evidently worked a treat, as the home side came back from the break looking to attack Liverpool on every occasion. Bringing on Anichebe, a former Everton striker, turned out to be a masterstroke.

So a minor setback for Liverpool in their quest for a top-four spot, while West Brom move a point away from the relegation zone.

Here are six things we learned from the pulsating draw between West Brom and Liverpool on Saturday. Let us know your views and thoughts in the comments below.

 

Defence Is Just as Important as Attack

Raheem Sterling. Luis Suarez. Daniel Sturridge. Goal. 1-0.

Is it a surprise anymore that the famed SAS partnership (and Sterling, who we’ll talk more about later) combined yet again to take Liverpool into the lead?

Sturridge’s goal brings him to 14 for the season, inching him close to Sergio Aguero’s second place (15) in the Premier League scoring charts for 2013/14. Liverpool’s lethal frontmen are currently far and away the most prolific strike partnership this season. (Suarez, of course, has 23 goals).

But while Liverpool fans have undoubtedly enjoyed watching their free-scoring attack at work this season, they’ll also be massively frustrated at yet another costly defensive blunder, this time from Kolo Toure.

Sure, it wasn’t just Toure’s mistake, as Simon Mignolet’s decision to roll the ball out to him, despite being surrounded by opponents, was questionable itself. But surely passing the ball across the face of goal when you’re enjoying a spell of pressure is not a good idea.

There will be times when Liverpool’s forwards can’t bail them out every single match. When that happens, they’ll need their defenders and midfielders to do what they can to ensure that, first and foremost, they don’t concede.

How many more reminders do they need?

 

Liverpool’s January Targets Weren’t What They Needed

Liverpool’s January Targets Weren’t What They Needed
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Much of Liverpool’s January was spent agonizing over the failed bid for Mohamed Salah, and in the final days, diverted towards the desperate push for Dnipro’s Yevhen Konoplyanka.

With the Suarez-Sturridge-Sterling trio working in tandem so smoothly and effortlessly, perhaps the non-arrival of the aforementioned wingers will prove to be blessings in disguise; the Reds’ current front three need time to develop together.

But it does raise a few serious questions.

The first of which is: Why was Brendan Rodgers targeting a forward to begin with?

More specifically, why, when Liverpool have such glaring weaknesses in the defence and midfield, was Brendan Rodgers still looking to strengthen up front instead of at the back?

And if the underlying reason is that Rodgers didn’t see a need to bring in defensive reinforcements, that would be the biggest question of all.

Perhaps January was just a case of bringing in extra firepower up front while all major defensive targets wouldn’t have been on the market.

Regardless, if Liverpool are to push on next season, they’ll surely have to look at doing more serious business this summer across the squad.

 

Steven Gerrard Can Do a Holding Job, but Needs a More Reliable Partner

Even before Lucas’ injury, it was apparent that the midfield needed shoring up (we even wrote an article about it in November).

But with Lucas out for a considerable period of time and no signings brought in over January, Brendan Rodgers has now tasked Steven Gerrard with the holding midfielder role and responsibilities.

A shaky introduction to life at the base of the Reds midfield against Aston Villa was followed by a masterclass in the 4-0 demolition of Everton in the Merseyside derby last week.

In the first half against West Brom, Gerrard was comfortably one of the best players on the pitch, as he showed much improved positioning and timing to anchor the midfield and protect the back four.

As the Baggies stepped up a gear in the second half and went at Gerrard, however, his need for a partnering midfield runner became all too apparent. And Jordan Henderson, as he has tended to alongside Gerrard, once again left his assertiveness and confidence on the sidelines.

The return of Joe Allen can’t have come any sooner. Arsenal possess midfielders capable of playing at a far higher level than West Brom’s, and Gerrard will need all the help he can get next week.

 

Raheem Sterling Is Quickly Becoming One of Liverpool’s Most Important Players

Raheem Sterling Is Quickly Becoming One of Liverpool’s Most Important Players
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

As Gerrard shone in the first half and toiled in the second, there was only one player of note that impressed over the entire 90 minutes: Raheem Sterling.

That Sterling’s shown encouraging and exciting improvement since returning to the first team in December is well known. That he seems to have rediscovered his confidence from the start of last season has been widely acknowledged.

But not only has he come back with a vengeance; he’s made it extremely difficult for Brendan Rodgers to leave him out of the starting XI.

Time and again on Sunday, Sterling tormented Liam Ridgewell on the West Brom left, while also putting in an admirable defensive shift to support Jon Flanagan.

His involvement in Sturridge’s goal was timely and important, while his strength on the ball and burst of acceleration means that he is a genuine all-rounded player.

At just 19 years of age, Raheem Sterling is fast becoming one of Liverpool’s most important players.

It wasn’t that long ago that he was linked with a loan move to Swansea City for more playing time; now, if he keeps this form up, it might not be long before his name is added to the Suarez-Sturridge mix—for an “SSS.”

 

Liverpool’s Away Record May Haunt Them

In 12 away games, Liverpool have now only amassed 16 points from an available 36 with four victories and four draws, and a goal difference of just +4.

Contrast this with their impeccable home form, which has seen them earn 31 points from a possible 36, and a goal difference of +29.

Fair to say, then, that it’s the Reds’ away record that has the potential to be their undoing this season.

Of course, Liverpool have already gotten most of their tough away games out of the way in the first half of the campaign, but if they are to reach the Champions League next season, they’ll need to start making their away form count.

With injuries slowly on their way back to the first-team squad, Liverpool need all the numbers they can get as they look to solidify their position in fourth, and maybe even close the gap on third-placed Chelsea.

Brendan Rodgers and his backroom staff will be working tirelessly to ensure that all their good work—especially in the immediate aftermath of the Everton thrashing—doesn’t go to waste on the road.

 

Two Points Dropped, and It’s Only Going to Get Tougher

Two Points Dropped, and It’s Only Going to Get Tougher
Ian Walton/Getty Images

The corresponding fixture last season was Steve Clarke’s first at West Brom, and Rodgers’ first at Liverpool. It ended 3-0 to the Baggies.

So compared with the 2012/13 campaign, in which Liverpool didn’t manage to get any points off West Brom across both fixtures, this season has already represented a massive improvement (four points from a 4-1 win and this draw).

But for Liverpool fans, players and coaches, this will have felt like a major two points dropped, especially in the context that fellow top-four rivals Tottenham Hotspur drew at Hull City and Manchester United lost to Stoke City at the Britannica Stadium.

As the competition for a Champions League place heats up in the remaining 14 games of the season, the pressure and stress won’t be forgiving on the players.

Next week’s clash against Arsenal at Anfield will prove pivotal—as will every other league fixture until the end of the season.

Without any new signings made in January, it’s now Rodgers’ job to cultivate in his squad the “cup final” mentality so famously necessary for the business ends of Premier League seasons.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: Positives and Negatives from Reds’ Anfield Draw

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

This Saturday, Liverpool hosted Aston Villa at Anfield in what turned out to be a thrilling Premier League match, as Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke had the visitors storming into a first-half lead before the Reds mounted a comeback via Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard.

Under pressure right from the start of the match, Liverpool got what their sloppy and uncertain play deserved when Weimann nipped in to score from a Gabby Agbonlahor cross, before Benteke doubled Villa’s lead 10 minutes after their first.

Sturridge’s finish to cap off some excellent combination play from the hosts was what they needed right on the stroke of half-time, and Gerrard calmly slotted away a penalty after Brad Guzan was adjudged to have fouled Luis Suarez in the box.

Here are eight positives and negatives from Liverpool’s draw at Anfield. Let us know your thoughts and views in the comments below.

 

The First Half Was an Indication of What Liverpool Still Lack…

All throughout the season, Liverpool have generally been solid against most opponents; their fourth-place standing in the Premier League will be an accurate reflection of that.

But against a certain style of team, the Reds have encountered an almost fatal Achilles’ heel: pace and power on the break, through the middle of the park.

So it’s no surprise that, after a comprehensive home defeat at the hands of Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, an unfancied Aston Villa side led by Paul Lambert were just one goal short of taking all three points at Anfield on Saturday.

To be sure, Brendan Rodgers’ tactical experiment backfired spectacularly—and we’ll have more on that later—but the deep prompting of Ashley Westwood and the power of Fabian Delph, allied with the pace of Agbonlahor and the industry of Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann, meant that the hosts just didn’t have enough in the tank to deal with an impressive first-half performance from the visitors.

If the Reds’ back four were on a whole unconvincing, it was the midfield that allowed Villa to storm in. After 22 league games, this remains a glaring problem for Liverpool.

 

…But the Second Half Showed How They Have Grown

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

All the same, credit must be afforded to the way the home side came back in the second half.

A flowing move deep in stoppage time in the first half, featuring an exquisite Jordan Henderson back-heel assist, ended with a clinical Sturridge finish and sent the Reds back to the dressing room with some encouragement.

And while Rodgers erred with his starting lineup, there was no prolongation of the same old problems when Lucas was introduced at the expense of Philippe Coutinho, which helped restore balance in the Reds’ approach play.

More importantly, and perhaps the silver lining from the game, was Liverpool’s mental resilience in mounting their comeback in the second half.

Regardless of whether their penalty was from a Guzan foul or a Suarez dive—and the debate will rage on for some time yet—a newfound aggression, not to mention familiarity with the system, was evident in the second 45 at Anfield.

 

The Midfield Is Still Alarmingly Short of Real Options…

But back to the midfield, which, when the dust settles from the two dropped points, is ultimately the root of the Reds’ current troubles.

The current senior central midfield lineup at Anfield stands as thus: Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen.

Glaringly missing from the quartet is a specialist defensive midfield with pace and capable of breaking up attacks and clean, crunching tackles to start counterattacks. The role of such a player cannot be understated: He provides the shield in front of the back four and alleviates both the midfield and defence by providing an additional safe outlet in the middle.

While all the noise after last weekend’s victory at Stoke City was about Steven Gerrard’s new role as holding midfielder, and while he even replaced Lucas in the latter’s now customary position, it was evident from the first 45 minutes that the captain just doesn’t have the legs or the cautiousness to excel in that role.

Henderson, tasked with being a defensive option, a midfield runner and an advanced attacking outlet, was simply overawed.

 

…But in Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling They Have the Future

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

On the bright side, Henderson replied to those who leveled at him the criticism that he shies away when his captain is in the same side with a mature and intelligent performance in the heart of the midfield.

While taking on the three aforementioned roles simultaneously was always going to be hard, he showed good responsibility tracking back and also inventiveness going forward, as shown clearly from his sensational back heel to set Sturridge up for Liverpool’s first goal.

So besides his famous work rate and never-ending harrying of his opponents, Henderson has also added flair and guile to his game.

Alongside him was another young starlet who had been written off for the majority of the 2013 calendar year. Raheem Sterling has been in exciting form since returning to Rodgers’ first team in December, and against Villa he turned in a performance that will have justified his manager’s continued faith in him.

Probably one of the few positives of the first half, Sterling then went on to cope well in a less familiar role at right wing-back in the second half, but yet he still timed his forward runs perfectly and showed his maturity and strength on the ball while doing his defensive work.

While the midfield is clearly in need of quality additions, in Henderson and Sterling—if they can keep up their development under Rodgers—Liverpool already have two key cogs in their ever-developing machine.

 

Brendan Rodgers’ Tactical Naivety Cost Liverpool Two Points…

Rodgers has rightly received many glowing plaudits from the way he has managed and grown this Liverpool side into genuine top-four contenders this season, yet Saturday will have been one of his lowest points as a Reds manager.

If not for the sheer reason that he couldn’t continue Liverpool’s momentum and home form, then definitely because it was his tactical naivety and proneness to tactical experimentation that cost his side two points.

The same fixture last season ended in an embarrassing 1-3 home loss to the Villans, and while Sturridge’s early goal handed Liverpool all three points at Villa Park back in August, the second half also saw the Reds kept at bay against an incessant and dominant Villa side.

After suffering the same fate against similarly fast and physical teams this season, Rodgers yet again faltered in selecting a weak midfield core of just Gerrard and Henderson, and in going with a conventional 4-4-2, left his left flank exposed with the rapidly deteriorating Cissokho and the weak Coutinho.

 

…But He Will Have Learned Painful Lessons

So Liverpool fans will be hoping Rodgers has come away from the draw thinking not only about their spirited second-half comeback but their shockingly disjointed first-half performance.

Twenty-two games in is not necessarily the time for Liverpool to be experimenting with new tactical systems, especially when their previous one had been working so well. They had just started seeing some impressive results.

Rodgers will also realize the importance of Jose Enrique and even Jon Flanagan’s imminent returns from injury, while Joe Allen can’t come back into the side quickly enough. And while Lucas might not be the best specialist defensive midfielder, it was his introduction that restored a sense of balance to the team in the second half.

A switch out to the left for Suarez with Sturridge as the central striker also didn’t have the desired outcome, though it was Suarez, of course, who won the equalizing penalty.

Having a fit and firing strike duo of Suarez and Sturridge would be the dream of many a Premier League manager, yet Rodgers needs to find a formula that can keep them scoring and assisting each other without adversely affecting the points on the board.

 

The Top-Four Race Has Now Been Blown Wide-Open Again…

In the immediate aftermath of the game, Liverpool remain fourth in the Premier League standings with 43 points on board.

With third-placed Chelsea on 46 having played a game less, there is already a small gap between the Reds and the top three of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, but Rodgers will now be looking nervously over his shoulder.

For both Everton and Tottenham can come dangerously close to Liverpool—and in the former’s case, even overtake their Merseyside rivals—if results go their way in the remainder of this Premier League weekend.

And if David Moyes finds a way to end Jose Mourinho’s impeccable home record at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Manchester United will suddenly storm back into top-four contention.

It’s a tight league this season, and the constant stress can’t be doing any good for everyone, especially the Liverpool manager.

 

…And Next Week’s Merseyside Derby Will Be Massive

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

As Tottenham look to continue their resurgence and possibly end Week 22 level on points (but with a vastly inferior goal difference), Liverpool will know that their main rivals to date are still Everton, who have impressed many pundits and fans with their enterprising and aesthetically pleasing style under Roberto Martinez this season.

Which makes the upcoming Merseyside derby on January 28 arguably one of the most important in recent seasons, simply because of the potential ramifications.

A thrilling 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture in November could well have ended in three points to the Red side if Allen had converted his easy chance, but it also showed the propensity of the Blues to score and come back. Liverpool required a returning Sturridge to save a point off the bench at the death.

While in reality there are only ever three points at stake, the proverbial “six-pointer” game applies more aptly to the 222nd Merseyside derby.

Liverpool’s next fixture will be an FA Cup tie against Bournemouth, but Brendan Rodgers can be forgiven if he is already setting his sights on the following Tuesday. It could define Liverpool’s season—and, indeed, even their short-to-medium-term future.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.