18 July 2017

On Lucas Leiva

The inevitable finally happens. After 10 seasons at the club – Liverpool's longest serving player by some distance – Lucas is moving to Lazio for a rumored £5m. It's a day long in coming, a day filled with happy memories, but also a day filled with regret. And sadness.

And with a couple of what-ifs.

What if Lucas Leiva scores on his league debut, coming on as a substitute for Steven Gerrard in a Merseyside Derby at Everton with the score 1-1? A goal-bound shot in added time, saved on the line by Phil Neville's handball. Dirk Kuyt scored the resulting penalty for Liverpool's win, but I still wonder if Lucas' career would've turned out differently had he been the hero.

More meaningfully, what if Lucas doesn't blow out his ACL in a League Cup match against Chelsea in November 2011? He's in the best form of his career after nearly being sold in the summer of 2010 by Roy Hodgson, notably dominant in the previous match, a 1-1 draw against eventual league winners Manchester City. He's the linchpin of Liverpool's midfield under Kenny Dalglish, a side finally returning to form after the Hodgson horrors. And it wasn't a stepped-wrong, would-probably-have-eventually-happened-regardless injury. It came from contact: first, a bad foul from Ramires, then a collision with Mata less than a minute later. In a League Cup match, more than an hour in, with the tie all but won. And Liverpool's medical staff sent him back on to play for three more minutes before he finally came off, unable to get off of Chelsea's pitch under his own weight.

That season, and the season before, Lucas might not have been Liverpool's best player, but there was a case to be made that he was Liverpool's most important. Gerrard had been dealing with injuries, and would do so off and on for all of 2011-12. Lucas' back-ups were Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing. Jordan Henderson, signed that summer, was used as a tucked-in winger as often as an orthodox central midfielder. So, unsurprisingly, Liverpool are notably worse without him, for the rest of the season. Liverpool end the campaign as League Cup winners and FA Cup runners-up, but finish eighth in the league. And Kenny Dalglish gets fired.

And, honestly, Lucas is never the same player again.

Lucas played more than 2800 Premier League minutes in each of the two seasons before that ACL injury, making 32 league starts in both campaigns. He never played more than 2000 league minutes in a season again.

Nevertheless, Lucas ends his Liverpool career with 346 appearances, the 46th-most all-time. He's 6th in Premier League appearances – behind only Carragher, Gerrard, Hyypiä, Reina, and Fowler.

Since World War II, there have been only four non-British or Irish Liverpool players to last at least 10 years with the club. Lucas Leiva is one. The others are Bruce Grobbelaar, Jan Mølby, and Sami Hyypiä. Grobbelaar, Hyypiä, Pepe Reina, and John Arne Riise are the only non-British or non-Irish players with more Liverpool appearances than Lucas Leiva.

Lucas has made the most Premier League appearances of any Brazilian player. Nobby Solano and Antonio Valencia are the only South American players with more than Lucas.

That's some company.

And no one could or would have predicted it ten years ago.



Incidentally, Lucas made his debut in the same match as Sebastian Leto: a 4-0 win over Toulouse in the Champions League qualifying round. Leto started. Lucas came on as a substitute, replacing Momo Sissoko. Leto made just four appearances for Liverpool, none in the league, mainly due to work permit problems. I'm fairly certain most would have expected Leto to do more in a Liverpool shirt than Lucas Leiva would.

Lucas would have to wait three months to make his first Premier League start.



There are some fun names in those two sides. And some very good players. It is safe to say he's seen quite a bit of change over the last 10 seasons.









It has been an eventual 10 seasons. As I suspect you remember.

Lucas has played alongside just shy of 120 different Liverpool players. For five different managers. Five very different managers: Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers, and Jürgen Klopp.

He came billed as a Bola de Ouro-winning box-to-box midfielder – taking the Brazilian league award a year after Carlos Tevez won it – then grew into an at-times-dominant defensive midfielder after a period of adjustment, and finished his tenure as a reserve splitting time between holding midfielder and center-back.

From young golden hope, to scapegoat, to under-appreciated internet darling, to one of the first names on the teamsheet, to useful squad player, to cagey veteran, to cult hero.

From this:



To this:



Time makes fools of us all.

He remains a still-valuable member of the squad, if only for his presence in the dressing room and institutional memory. Sure, he's still more than capable of putting in good games, even if it's mixed with poor ones and mistakes. One week, he'd stuff Harry Kane in his pocket. The next, he's being beaten all ends up by Jamie Vardy. He'd become serviceable but not great at both defensive midfielder and center-back, and he's probably not good enough to play more than a few games at either position in a side being built to compete for the Premier League title.

But, at this point in his career, it seemed the legacy that mattered more. He was the last player signed by Rafa Benitez still at the club. He made it through both Hicks and Gillett, and Roy Hodgson. He played a fairly substantial role in two of the best Liverpool sides in the last 25 years, and played for the side which tallied Liverpool's lowest points total in a league campaign since the switch to three points for a win (which, coincidentally, was Lucas' ACL injury season). He'd become a Liverpool fixture, wholly understanding both club and city. At the absolute least, I suspect he was crucial in helping Coutinho and Firmino adjust to life at Liverpool. And, I mean, the man did this. "Unluckeeeeeeee" will live long in the memory.

Liverpool's longest serving player is now Liverpool's captain: Jordan Henderson, who joined the club in June 2011. Who has made 107 fewer appearances for Liverpool than Lucas Leiva. Who is still only 27 years old. And who also embarrassed himself in all sorts of ways in that "Unluckeeee" video, but that's not really here nor there.

For better and for worse, one of the youngest sides in the league has gotten even younger.

To be fair, it's time for Lucas to move on. Long past time if you believe some, but the right time in my opinion. That doesn't make it any less sad. But I'm still proud that Lucas Leiva played 10 seasons for Liverpool. I'm still delighted that Liverpool didn't sell him in 2010, or 2014, or 2016. Lucas Leiva still is, and will always be, one of my favorite under-loved Liverpool players from the last 15 years, alongside Agger, alongside Kuyt.

Also, hey, Liverpool, when's the testimonial? You really need to get on that. It's embarrassing that it hasn't already happened.

Obrigado e boa sorte, Lucas.

20 June 2017

On Mohamed Salah

For all the hand-wringing and fears, Mohamed Salah is now a Liverpool player. For what might be a Liverpool record transfer fee, dependent on add-ons and accounting and who's reporting. And, to be fair to Liverpool, it is only June 22.



Well that's encouraging. Continual improvement from age 21 through now, an absolutely stunning last two seasons at AS Roma, and even his Chelsea tenure seems under-appreciated in statistical retrospect.



I enjoy this too. Incidentally, there are an awful lot of similarities in Salah and Mané's numbers from last season. Like Mané and Coutinho, that's an impressive goals + assists per 90 total, even better in both goals and assists than Liverpool's two best attackers from 2016-17. Like Mané, that's a heavy emphasis on in-box shots and clear-cut chance goals. More key passes than Firmino and almost as many as Coutinho. A better tackles + interception rate than Mané despite playing in a less fervent press. A dribble success rate also exactly at Mané and Firmino's clips, despite far fewer attempted. Fewer possession losses than any of Liverpool's primary front three from last season.

And lots and lots of goals.



Here's video of those 19 goals.

15 of 19 goals in the Danger Zone. Five in the six-yard box, five from rebounds. 14 of those 19 goals were from Opta-defined clear-cut chances, including 10 of 15 in the league.

That's not a winger's record. That's a striker's record. That's a poacher's record.



A lot of Salah's goals surprisingly fill what was a shallow spot for Liverpool last season. Middle of the Danger Zone, right side. Salah cutting in and getting his, whether from through-balls, chips, crosses, dribbles, or rebounds. Between Coutinho doing Coutinho, Mané moving where he wants, and Firmino mostly central, the right-side of the box was far less represented in Liverpool's scoring totals than you'd expect from Liverpool's goal return. Not that it truly matters where goals are scored as long as goals are scored, but more options and more locations (good locations, too!) is always better.

It's also absolutely clear that Mohamed Salah is very left-footed. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are only five left-footed players in Liverpool's squad. Three are defenders – Moreno, Sakho, and Klavan – two of whom seem certain to leave this summer. There's Sheyi Ojo, whose status is very much up for debate. And there's Daniel Sturridge. And that's it, no matter how two-footed Lallana is.

Liverpool scored 15 left-footed goals in the league last season: Lallana 4; Firmino, Mané 3; Can, Coutinho, Origi, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1. Mohamed Salah scored 11 on his own. Liverpool scored 19 left-footed goals in all competitions last season (three more for Sturridge and one for Klavan). Salah scored 14 on his own.

Salah is another crucial piece of the jigsaw puzzle, both because of his abilities and just in the position he plays. Liverpool very much suffered from a lack of attacking depth last season. Sadio Mané missed 11 league matches last season. Coutinho missed seven, as did Adam Lallana – who played a lot more matches in midfield than in attack. Salah also missed seven – two through injury, four because of the African Cup of Nations, and one because he was left on the bench in a rout of Fiorentina, after just returning from AFCON. But just two were through injury, one fewer than he missed in 2015-16.

When Mané, Firmino, and Coutinho all started, Liverpool averaged 2.20 points per game in the league. When any of the three were absent, Liverpool averaged 1.87 points per game. Which wasn't as much of a drop-off as I expected, but a drop-off nonetheless – the difference between 84 points and 71 points when averaged out over a full 38-match season. Liverpool don't just need attacking depth – although it certainly doesn't hurt – Liverpool need another player capable of changing and winning games. And Mohamed Salah's certainly capable of doing so.

And, just as importantly, Salah aligns perfectly within Liverpool's ideal age bracket.



Salah, Mané, Coutinho, and Firmino – Liverpool top four attackers – are all 25, the first three born within two months of each other. Just entering their prime. Wijnaldum's 26, Henderson's 27, Can's 23. Clyne and Matip are 26, Lovren will be 28 in two weeks. This side, this squad, this starting XI, is coming of age now. Right now.



When everyone's available, Coutinho can and probably will play deeper, as we saw in the last two matches of 2016-17. Mané can and probably will play on the left, as he did in around a third of his matches for Southampton, as he usually does for Senegal.

But Coutinho will still get games in the front three. Mané will still get games on the right. Liverpool don't necessarily need plug and play superstars, although that rarely hurts. Liverpool need depth – more specifically, quality in depth. Liverpool need options.

Liverpool now have another very, very good option. One of the all-around attacking options in Serie A last season. One which helps all over the front six. It frees up Coutinho to play in midfield. Lallana will probably be an often-used utility player, capable of featuring in either midfield or on either flank. Mané can play on either flank. Both Henderson and Can can play either midfield role. And, if absolutely needed, I suspect Salah would do well enough in leading the line, as would Mané. It's weird, and it's also summer – that time of unavoidable optimism, where we all think the team is better than it actually is – but just this one signing makes the front six look so much deeper.

Of course, there are concerns. There are always concerns.

Mohamed Salah's best position is Sadio Mané's position. Sure, Salah can play as a second striker or as a more orthodox winger on the left. Mané can play as a striker or on the left. But best position is still best position and changing what's worked is always fraught with peril.

And, speaking of emulating Sadio Mané... remember when Mané and Matip missed an entire month while Liverpool were mired in a tailspin? Remember why? Yeah. If you thought you hated the 2017 African Cup of Nations, get hyped for the 2019 version.

Also, like most scorers, like most creative attackers, Salah can be incredibly streaky. And his streaks have come at the same time in his last two seasons at Roma.

Despite scoring 15 and assisting 11 in the league in 2016-17, Salah scored just once and created just two assists from November 20 through March 12, with his lone goal and both assists coming after February 7. Granted, that's a bit unfair because of his participation in the African Cup of Nations, missing the first five league matches of 2017, but it's not as if those were the only matches he failed to score in. Or that similar didn't happen the season before.



Put bluntly: Mohamed Salah failed to score or assist in the league from the end of November through the end of January in either 2015-16 or 2016-17. And I'm sure you remember how well Liverpool did during that stretch last season. How much Liverpool needed help – especially in attack – during that stretch last season.

Salah's drought lasted from Match 10 through Match 21 (October 20 – January 24) in 2015-16, and from Match 13 through Match 23 (November 20 – February 7) in 2016-17. And he only missed ten of those 23 matches: five because of AFCON and two through injury last season, three through injury and one through suspension in 2015-16. 13 games, during the often difficult, often treacherous winter period. No goals or assists. Yes, yes, sample size. Yes, yes, circumstances. Yes, yes, Serie A has a two-week winter break during that time. Yes, yes, Sadio Mané had a similar drought in his last season at Southampton. Still slightly worrisome.

I remember writing "now is the winter of our discontent" far too often last season. I'd prefer to not do it again.

There's also the fear that Salah won't be able to replicate those spell-binding numbers from the last two seasons. I'm not especially concerned on the goal-scoring front: that Liverpool attack – everyone involved – scores goals, often in bunches, when the best players are available. Even Divock Origi, who most will admit disappointed last season, put up 0.43 goals per 90 in the league last season. But I am a bit more concerned about goal creation. Eight of Salah's 12 assists in all competitions (seven of 11 in Serie A) and 22 of Salah's 71 created chances went to Edin Dzeko, and Liverpool won't often have a player like Edin Dzeko up front, at least when Firmino's the primary striker. Sturridge, Origi, Ings, and Solanke may be different stories, but I still very much expect Salah's key pass and assist rates to go down next season. Like Sadio Mané, he'll more often be on the end of what's created by Firmino, Coutinho, Wijnaldum, Lallana, etc.

He'll be playing with different players, different types of players, and he'll also be playing in a different league.

You're going to see and hear the words "Chelsea flop" far too frequently over the new few days, weeks, and months. At least this one's already rightfully debunked. If Salah's a Chelsea flop, so were De Bruyne, Lukaku, Sturridge, etc. But it's almost fair to worry about his past Premier League experience. It's probably fairer to worry about the league where he put up the numbers that are leading Liverpool to this deal.

Want to make a Liverpool supporter cringe? Here's a fun list: Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, Alberto Aquilani, Andrea Dossena, Christian Poulsen, Daniele Padelli. Those are some fun Serie A transfers in the last 10 years.

Of course, there's also Philippe Coutinho, so let's hope the curse is limited to actual Italians and Christian Poulsen.

Past is obviously not necessarily precedent.

The hype may have been overwhelming and unreachable, but Paul Pogba just had a perfectly cromulent season. Graziano Pelle – by way of Feyenoord before joining the Premier League – and Manolo Gabbiadini did or have done well enough for Southampton. Marcos Alonso was excellent last season, Matteo Darmian seems capable every now and then, and Kolarov was terrifying in his prime. Shaqiri's been as advertised at Stoke, although his more formative years were spent in Switzerland and Germany rather than Italy.

But there's also Juan Cuadrado, who's once again thriving in Serie A after a failed spell at Chelsea – another one of those "Chelsea flops," one bought as Salah's replacement. There's Erik Lamela, the Lost Boy of Tottenham. There's Stefan Jovetic, who was more than capable but – like Lamela – injury-plagued and subsequently forgotten. And there are all those Liverpool washouts.

Past is obviously not necessarily precedent, but I obviously also worry. I worry about a lot of things; it's what I do.

And we're not getting out of here without mentioning the transfer fee. €40m, or whatever's eventually announced or achieved, is a lot of money.

But that's not something that actually worries me. It doesn't mean anything except let's pretend it actually gets Andy Carroll's transfer fee record off the books. Here's a more meaningful number: £8.3 billion. That's the current Premier League TV deal revenue. Liverpool received £148.4 million of that in 2016-17.

I've said it after almost every transfer in the past few seasons, and was especially vehement in regards to Sadio Mané's. Pay no attention to the fee. Pay attention to the player's talents, and how the player fits into the Liverpool side that Jürgen Klopp is building.

Mohamed Salah is egregiously talented. And Mohamed Salah absolutely fits.

14 June 2017

On Liverpool's 2017-18 PL Fixtures




Here's the actual game-by-game fixture list from the official site.

And a reminder: for comparable results between the three relegated and promoted clubs, it's in order of finish from last season. The 18th-placed side in 2016-17 matches up with last season's Championship winners, 19th with last season's runners-up, and 20th with the playoff winners. So, Hull = Newcastle, Boro = Brighton, and Huddersfield = Sunderland. It's certainly not perfect, but it's the closest we can get.

My initial thoughts:

It's finally sinking in that Liverpool are going to play a lot of games next season. Like, a lot; somewhere between 55-60 seems a safe guess, compared to last season's 47. But it'll take some doing to top the 63 in 2015-16, the joint-most Liverpool have played in one campaign (along with 2000-01, the cup treble season) since 1991-92. For comparison, Liverpool played 58 in 2014-15, 43 in 2013-14, 54 in 2012-13, 51 in 2011-12, and 54 in 2010-11. Weird how Liverpool's best two Premier League campaigns in the last eight seasons came the only times they've had fewer than 50 matches.

Even if Liverpool don't win their Champions League playoff, they'll drop into the Europa League. Plus, there's the League Cup. And when it looks as if the fixture list starts to ease in January, we'll have the FA Cup, potentially still the League Cup, and maybe even *crosses fingers* European knock-out rounds starting in February.

Yikes.

It feels like I should mention that Liverpool's squad wasn't even deep enough for 47 games last season.

But, on the whole, it seems a reasonably decent fixture list. The matches against last season's Top 7 are fairly spread out. There aren't any truly vicious back-to-back away matches. Liverpool start away from home for the third consecutive season, but against a side that'll have a new manager and almost certainly a fair amount of new players. Aside from away matches against United, Everton, and Chelsea, the final three months seem relatively tame, similar to last season's run-in where Liverpool won eight of the last 12, with three draws and a loss, to barely nudge their way into fourth.

Of course, as always with Liverpool, dig a little bit deeper and you start to worry.

Liverpool's matches prior to the all-important Champions League playoff round are Watford away and Palace at home. An away match to start then a fixture that Liverpool lost last season, against a side that somehow, bafflingly, often causes Liverpool problems.

The subsequent matches following European competition – whether it's the Champions League or Europa League – are Arsenal away, Burnley at home, Newcastle away, Tottenham away, West Ham away, Chelsea at home, and Everton at home.

Four matches against last season's top seven sides, two away and two at home. Four matches away, four at Anfield. Liverpool's record in those fixtures last season was 4W-2D-2L (remember, Newcastle away = Hull away and let's not talk about Hull away any more than we have to), which is more than decent (a 2.25 ppg average), but will also be hard to replicate. Arsenal's going to be better. Liverpool barely won against Burnley. An away match against a promoted side. Tottenham. One of Liverpool's bogey opponents. Last season's runaway league winners. And a Merseyside Derby.

There's only one back-to-back against sides from last season's Top Six, but it's a home match against Manchester United followed by a trip to Tottenham, with one of those European matches will be sandwiched in between. Liverpool play Arsenal in the third Premier League match and City in the fourth Premier League match, but there's an international break in between.

So let's also mention those international breaks. We get one before facing City. We get another before facing United. There will be matches against Southampton (H) and Crystal Palace (A) after internationals later in the season. And it will be hard to top Liverpool's record following internationals in 2016-17, when they beat Leicester and Everton at home, and drew with United and Southampton, two 0-0s that probably should have been wins.

And there's the small matter of December. There will be eight matches. Eight. Maybe nine; the League Cup schedule hasn't been announced yet, if Liverpool get that far (which they have in the last three seasons). There wasn't a League Cup game in December last season – Liverpool beat Leeds at the very end of November before resuming in January – but there was one in the first week of December in 2015-16 and second week of December in 2014-15.

But the Boxing Day – New Year's stretch isn't wholly awful. Swansea (H), Leicester (H), Burnley (A). Two home games and a short away trip and – for what little it's worth, at least last season – against sides who finished 12th, 15th, and 16th in 2016-17. Last season's holiday week was Stoke (H), City (H), Sunderland (A). 2015-16 was Leicester (H), Sunderland (A), West Ham (A). And I suspect you still remember 2013-14: City (A), Chelsea (A), and Hull (H), the first two ending in 1-2 losses which very, very much made a difference at the end of the season.

It does look better once Liverpool get through what will inevitably be the winter of our discontent. Liverpool went unbeaten in what will be next season's final 16 fixtures in 2016-17: from Manchester City at Anfield (a 1-0 win) through a victory over the second Promoted Championship side to close the campaign. 11 wins and five draws, an average of 2.38 points per game.

Of course, Liverpool almost certainly won't replicate that run. And, ideally, Liverpool will have more matches than those listed above, preferably the Champions League knock-out rounds but possibly the Europa League, and maybe an FA Cup run, and maybe the League Cup semi-finals and final.

Yikes.

But there really is little point worrying about the fixture list. Liverpool will play all 19 other teams twice. There will be cup matches, more than usual thanks to Europe, but that goes along with actually being good at the football.

Last season, we freaked out about playing top sides away from home early, and Liverpool beat both Arsenal and Chelsea and drew with Tottenham. We freaked out about the comparable run-in results – Liverpool were winless in the final six equivalent fixtures from 2015-16 – and Liverpool ended winning four, drawing once, and losing once in last season's last six matches to cement that Champions League qualifying place.

Once the season starts, you can only beat what's directly in front of you. You have to manage the inevitable fixture congestion and injuries. You have to be better than you were the season before, and we're all still well aware where Liverpool still need to improve.

And I can't believe we still have two months before it starts.

29 May 2017

2016-17 Liverpool Season Review

This was an okay season! Good, even! Really good when you remember the two before! It could have been better – and we all distinctly remember when, where, and how – but it could have been a lot worse. It usually is, after all. Liverpool scored a lot of goals – mainly in stretches, in spurts – and Liverpool let in a couple fewer than the past two seasons. Yeah, there was pain. It is Liverpool, after all.

When all was said and done, Liverpool finished four places and 16 points better than they did in 2015-16. Which is good enough for the Holy Grail. Good enough for fourth. Good enough for next season's Champions League, if only the final qualifying round.

If I wanted to make this short – oh, it's not going to be – that's really all that mattered this season, Jürgen Klopp's first full season at the club. Improvement. Improvement and fourth place. But mostly just fourth place, in a season where you needed 10 more points than last season to finish fourth. In a season where United improved by three points, Arsenal by four points, City by 12 points, Tottenham by 16 points, and Chelsea by a massive 43 points compared to last season's results.

And the league is only going to get harder.


Sure, let's start with some more stats


First, a quick and dirty comparison with Liverpool's 2015-16 league campaign:



Everything is mostly good. Everything is mostly better, and some notably so. There are two things that aren't: opposition shot accuracy and opposition clear-cut chances. It is safe to assume we will mention Liverpool's defensive issues again.

To see how Liverpool fared statistically in comparison to other sides, WhoScored's Premier League page is a good place to start, and for more in-depth, I recommend Ben Mayhew's scatter graphics and Objective Football's fancy stats.

In brief: Liverpool were very good in most shooting statistics, such as shot ratios (both total and on-target) and xG, both in taking shots and limiting the opposition's. Liverpool were not so good when it comes to things like PDO, save percentage, and opposition clear-cut chances. Liverpool were better in the first half of the season than the second, mainly because of a horrific start to 2017. Liverpool took lots of shots, and maybe could have converted more of them. Liverpool allowed very few opposition shots, but they were very good opposition shots, which the opposition converted too many of.

Having watched Liverpool this season, none of this should surprise you.


The lads, eh...


Liverpool used 28 players this season. 23 featured in Liverpool's 38 Premier League games, while five more played only cup matches.

23 different players are the joint-fewest used by a Premier League side this season, along with West Brom. Both Chelsea and Tottenham are next closest with 24, although to be fair, two of Tottenham's 24 played fewer than five minutes this season.

10 players made their Liverpool debuts this season: Mané, Wijnaldum, Matip, Klavan, Grujic, Karius, Alexander-Arnold, Ejaria, Woodburn, and Wilson. 16 players who made at least one league appearance in 2015-16 didn't play for Liverpool in any competition this season: Benteke, Ibe, Allen, Skrtel, Sakho, Toure, Smith, Flanagan, Brannagan, Bogdan, Teixeira, Chirivella, Caulker, Ward, Rossiter, and Canos.

That's quite a lot of turnover. I find it hard to believe we'll see anywhere near that much next season.

23 players in the league and 28 in all competitions is 11 fewer in both Premier League games and all competitions compared to last season. Only six Liverpool players managed to make 30 or more Premier League appearances in 2015-16 season: Mignolet, Clyne, Moreno, Firmino, Lallana, and Can. Eight did in 2016-17: Clyne, Milner, Wijnaldum, Firmino, Origi, Can, Coutinho, and Lallana.

As an aside, there are no central defenders on either 30-or-more-appearances list; no center-back played in more than 24 league games in 2015-16 and both Lovren and Matip each played 29 this season. At least one Liverpool center-back started 30 or more league games in every season from 1998-99 until 2014-15, whether Hyypia, Henchoz, Carragher, Agger, or Skrtel. There is something to be said for a settled defense. And it is safe to assume we will mention Liverpool's defensive issues again.

But, anyway, to return to the original point, fewer players in the Liverpool squad did make sense. Liverpool had fewer games without the Europa League, and there was clearly deadwood needing to be trimmed after 2015-16.

Having fewer players made a lot more sense before the season started.

Liverpool played 47 matches in 2016-17. Even with far fewer players in the squad, Liverpool used 40 different starting XIs.





You'll probably want to open the minutes played graphic in a new window.

Just 17 of Liverpool's 23 Premier League players featured for more than 300 minutes. That's a heavy reliance on an amount which isn't even enough to fill the match-day squad. And the average age of those 17 players is just 26.4 years old. Once again, Liverpool had one of the youngest sides in the Premier League this season. If you include the other six players who featured in league matches – Moreno, Alexander-Arnold, Woodburn, Grujic, Ejaria, and Stewart; you'd expect three or four of those players to see more minutes next season – the average age drops to 24.8.

The 11 Liverpool players who played the most minutes, both in the league and all competitions: Clyne, Firmino, Milner, Wijnaldum, Lovren, Can, Mignolet, Matip, Lallana, Mané, Coutinho. That's not a bad XI.

That XI hasn't been on the pitch at the same time this season. Ever. Not as a starting XI, not with someone coming on as a substitute. Either Liverpool were missing Mané or Coutinho or Henderson or Matip or etc etc, at literally every stage of the season. The closest Liverpool came to that XI was in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea, when a returning Sadio Mané replaced Philippe Coutinho. That's the only match that those 11 players all at least featured in.

We saw only four Liverpool starting XIs feature in multiple matches.

    
    

There's at least one player in all four of those XIs who makes you go, "wait, him?" And the XI closest to what's probably Liverpool's ideal, or at least closest to what we thought we'd see before the season started – the first, at Southampton and against Sunderland – had both Lallana absent through injury and Coutinho go off early in the second match, the incident which marked the beginning of the downward winter spiral, even if it took a few more matches for the rot to truly set in.

It is not coincidence that the two most-settled sides, the two sides who suffered the fewest injuries – more specifically, injuries to key players – have won the league in the last two seasons. But injuries happen.

And it is safe to say that injuries, absentees, and squad depth had a massive impact on Liverpool's season.


Now is the winter of our discontent...






Liverpool's slump didn't start when initially overloaded with matches – at least not in the league; there were more than a few unwelcome cup ties in January, even if Liverpool heavily rotated for those matches. But the month where Liverpool had the most matches, Liverpool were mostly good. Sure, Bournemouth and West Ham happened, immediately after Coutinho's injury, but Liverpool also narrowly beat Everton and City and throughly beat Middlesbrough and Stoke.

Liverpool's slump happened the next month, when fatigue set in and with key players still or becoming absent. Specifically, Coutinho either still injured or obviously nowhere near match fit after missing all of December, combined with Mané at the African Cup of Nations and Matip both injured then ineligible due to the African Cup of Nations.

Liverpool didn't win its first league game of 2017 until February 11, the sixth league match of the new year. Draws at Sunderland and United, and against Chelsea, with Liverpool taking a 1-0 lead in those first two away draws, ultimately conceding an equalizer in the 84th minute of both matches. Losses against Swansea and at Hull. Hull ended up relegated, with Swansea not far safe. That loss against Swansea was Liverpool's first home loss of the season, and came with Swansea 20th in the table having been out-scored 20-4 in their seven previous matches. And Liverpool only won one of the five cup matches during that stretch – the 1-0 replay at Plymouth – held 0-0 by Plymouth at Anfield, losing 0-1 in both semi-final League Cup legs against Southampton, then 1-2 against Wolves at Anfield.

Aside from Coutinho, Mané, and Matip, Henderson, Milner, Sturridge, Clyne, Lucas, Lallana, and Lovren also had minor injuries during that stretch, the majority missing at least one league match in the first six weeks of 2017. And at the same time, overuse set in with those who remained available, most notably with Roberto Firmino – limited to two goals and no assists in his ten starts in January and February, both goals coming in that 2-3 loss against Swansea – and Adam Lallana – who had seven goals and seven assists in the first 19 games of the league season, and one goal and no assists in the last 19 games of the league season.

The fatigue, especially in the front six, is likely a by-product of Liverpool's playing style, which makes getting more and better players even more essential. The fixture list isn't getting any lighter and the Premier League isn't getting any easier. I truly hope that the injuries aren't a by-product, though.

Also, I understand complaints about Liverpool's refusal or inability to strengthen during the January transfer window, but I've always been more sanguine about that period than most. It's not easy to add at that time of the season, and Klopp's not the first Liverpool manager reticent to spend in that window. Still, you can't help but wonder what could have been.

And Liverpool's squad, as currently built, isn't deep enough or strong enough to cope with missing that many players, or those players, no matter the opposition. Emphasis on "no matter the opposition."


Please stop giving away points as charity






Liverpool's only away losses came against 9th, 12th, 16th, and 18th. Liverpool's only home losses came against 14th and 15th.

In losses at Bournemouth and against Palace, Liverpool had the lead – multiple times and a two-goal advantage at Bournemouth! – and couldn't hold on. In draws at Sunderland and against West Ham, Liverpool had the lead and couldn't hold on.

We all remember why. Dumb, ill-timed goals conceded, often through defensive errors or set plays.

And at the other end of the pitch, a recurring inability to break down deep, determined defenses, especially when without Sadio Mané or, to a lesser extent, Coutinho and Lallana. Not enough movement, not enough pace in behind. Too many shots from distance, too many crosses. Then, too open against the counter-attack when throwing bodies against said brick wall, leading to said dumb and ill-timed goals conceded.

We saw a preview of all the evil in the second match of the season – 0-2 at Burnley – when, coincidentally, Mané's minor injury kept him out of the squad. An early goal conceded through a defensive error, a second through a counter-attack 35 minutes later, 80% possession and 26 shots but 65% of those shots from outside the box. And zero goals.

To be slightly fairer, Liverpool have dropped points, usually more than once, against at least one of the relegated sides in every season going back to 2002-03 except for 2013-14. Not that it makes this season's lost points any easier to stomach.

And Liverpool did, eventually, find a bit of balance at the end of season, first in cutting down on goals conceded while struggling in attack, then switching to a 4-Diamond-2 for the final two matches to blow past West Ham and Middlesbrough. Four consecutive clean sheets to finish the campaign, for the first time since Klopp took over. Just one goal conceded through a defensive error in the final 12 matches, and just three from set plays.

The defensive improvement was encouraging, and it is probably not coincidence that both Matip and Lovren started Liverpool's final seven matches, their longest stretch together this season, the longest stretch for any Liverpool center-back pairing this season. But the seven goals scored in the last two games were even more so.

The win at West Ham was especially encouraging considering Liverpool were backs against the wall, coming off a run where they'd scored just three in the previous four games, and facing a side they hadn't beaten in the five previous meetings. And it is hard to tell how much was due to "team with nothing to play for falls apart after conceding the opener, loses wildly" and how much was due to Liverpool actually doing good things. Still, after averaging 15 shots over the six previous games, going back to Sadio Mané's injury against Everton, Liverpool took 26 at West Ham and 25 against Boro. After averaging barely more than a goal per game over the six previous games, Liverpool scored four at West Ham and three against Boro.

And they did it against the type of sides that Liverpool threw multiple points away when facing earlier in the season, in matches that Liverpool had no choice but to win, and all without Sadio Mané. Those wins against West Ham and Boro were Liverpool's only Premier League matches where they scored three or more without Mané in the XI.

It came desperately close to "too little, too late," but Liverpool pulled through in the end.


One more thing about the defense...




Two center-back pairings played the majority of Liverpool's Premier League matches, the second thanks to Matip's long absence midseason. And both were mostly okay. Mostly. Matip and Lovren were the most consistent; Lovren and Klavan allowed the least and were a bit unlucky in goals conceded, but also saw the most errors; Matip and Klavan were very, very lucky but at least didn't make any unforgivable mistakes; and Lucas isn't a center-back.

All four of Liverpool's pairings had good matches – even Lucas, in keeping Harry Kane utterly silent at Anfield. All four had at least one very bad match – the most notable were Matip and Lovren at Swansea and against Palace, Lovren and Klavan against Swansea and Bournemouth, Matip and Lucas at Leicester, and Matip and Klavan at Manchester City. All four center-backs committed at least one Opta-defined defensive error leading to a goal: Matip in the 2-2 against West Ham, Lovren in the 4-2 at Palace, Klavan in the 2-3 against Swansea (and the first penalty in 2-2 Sunderland), and Lucas in the 4-1 against Leicester.

Which is in keeping what the majority of us already thought. Matip is Liverpool's best defender but – like Daniel Agger before him – is getting a reputation for not being available often enough. Lovren is Lovren, one minute a world-beater, in a full-blown panic the next minute, and he missed just as many matches as Matip this season. Klavan is serviceable but should be fourth-choice at best and, again, Lucas Leiva is not a center-back.

What was most important was a settled defense, whether Lovren-Klavan – five unbeaten games, from 3-0 Boro through 2-2 Sunderland, four wins and a draw only because of two stupid penalties – or Matip-Lovren in the final seven games of the season.

Liverpool haven't had a settled defense often enough, and that's down to the center-backs, because Clyne and Milner were all but omnipresent. Not that Milner's omnipresence was necessarily a good thing.


One more thing about the attack...






I would just like to highlight how many of Sadio Mané's goals and Roberto Firmino's assists came with Liverpool's preferred front three all on the pitch. Coincidentally, Liverpool's top assist-scorer combination this season? Mane and Firmino.

News Flash: When Liverpool had its preferred front three and settled center-backs, Liverpool were pretty good. Against the top sides and even against the bottom. And Liverpool's best players played better and did more when playing with better players. I imagine this surprises no one.

It's at the sharp ends of the pitch where this matters the most. The midfield's basically fine, even if – like in attack and defense – some players weren't available as often as we'd have liked. But Liverpool coped well enough with Can rarely playing in the first third of the season and Henderson out for nearly all of 2017. Liverpool have enough options in Henderson, Can, Wijnaldum, Lallana, Grujic, and Coutinho if needed, even if Lucas departs as expected; my only concern is if Henderson again misses half the season, as he's now done in each of the last two seasons. That's the only thing to explain the Naby Keita chase, but we'll let transfer rumor bingo lie for another day.

Unfortunately, Liverpool's best players at either sharp end of the pitch weren't available anywhere near as much as we'd like them to have been.


So, now what?


By now, we all know what needs fixing.

Breaking down defensive sides. Conceding dumb goals. Dropping points against the league's lesser lights. And most of it goes back to squad depth, but also starting XI quality in a couple of positions – left-back, center-back, one more top-level attacker.

There were times where Liverpool did well coping with all of those first three issues, both in the beginning of the season and at the end, and intermittently in-between. And Liverpool will assuredly attempt to further remedy these issues, as well as the last, over the summer transfer window. Everyone's already really really really excited for Liverpool to spend approximately seventy trillion pounds in the next two months.

As said above – probably not enough, at least in comparison to the complaints – Liverpool did a lot of good things this season. Liverpool improved a lot in comparison to the previous two seasons. At times, Liverpool scored a bunch of goals. At others, Liverpool strangled opponents, limiting them to exceptionally few shots and sometimes even few goals. Sometimes Liverpool even did both. Last summer's signings were almost completely successful, especially Sadio Mané, and if Liverpool can replicate or even surpass that in this summer window, hooooooo boy.

Because Liverpool will need to do all of those good things next season, in addition to less of the bad. With the league likely to get even tougher at both ends of the table and a return to European football after a year's absence, Liverpool will need to do all of them a lot better and a lot more consistently.

23 May 2017

Liverpool Goals Scored and Conceded 2016-17





(Here are similar versions from 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16.)

The short version is Liverpool improved in all of these categories compared to last season. Total goals, number of players with 10 or more league goals, goals conceded, minutes per goal, set play goals conceded, etc.

That's a good thing! That bodes well for next season!

But the slightly longer version is that improvement was the minimum standard required, especially in regards to goals conceded, considering how Liverpool fared in both 2014-15 and 2015-16.



The second-best season in regards to goals scored – no prizes for guessing the best – in the last five seasons, and the best in regards to goals conceded.

Sure, Liverpool's goals conceded mark is nowhere near what Liverpool did under Rafa Benitez (41, 25, 27, 37, 27, 41 in his six Premier League seasons). It's still worse than Liverpool's average league goals conceded over the last 20 seasons – 1.03 per game. Liverpool's opponents scored a higher percentage of their goals in the Danger Zone than Liverpool did, and a vastly higher percentage in the six-yard box. Liverpool's opponents scored a higher percentage of their goals in the final 15 minutes of matches. All of those aren't good things. Here, more than at the other end of the pitch, is where Liverpool still most needs to improve. But improvement is improvement is improvement. It's better than last year. It's better than the four previous seasons. It is actually better, despite how we feel whenever an attacker is one-on-one with Dejan Lovren or the opposition's lining up for a corner.

And, despite more than a few horror shows, the amount of goals conceded from set plays has gotten better as well.



I know, that's not how I remember it either. But, to be meaner, there were some costly ones.



Eight of 13 conceded in draws or losses. Five of 13 conceded at 0-0. Bournemouth's two late equalizers, Benteke's winner. Three coming from defensive errors: Karius on Payet's direct free kick, Mignolet at Hull, and Wijnaldum against Bournemouth. Fewer set play goals conceded is better. Even fewer would be best.

Still, it's hard to complain about Liverpool's scoring return, aside from the doldrums over the winter months with Coutinho's injury and Mané's absence.



Liverpool's second-highest goals per game average in all competitions in the last ten seasons8, and Liverpool's second-highest goals per game average in the league since the Premier League began in 1992-93.

Sure, it was fueled by the first third of season – four goals against Arsenal and Leicester, five against Hull, six against Watford. Sure, it got really, really bad in the middle third of the season. But Liverpool did bounce back, despite lingering injury and depth issues, despite teams working out how to defend against Liverpool's preferred system. And the last two games make the final third of the season look a lot better than it felt three weeks ago.

But Liverpool did at least bounce back. At both ends of the pitch.



And because of that, Liverpool finished fourth.

22 May 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 3-0 Middlesbrough

Previous Match Infographics: West Ham (a), Southampton (h), Watford (a), Crystal Palace (h), 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.



When Liverpool were backs against the wall, needing to win its last two games, Liverpool won. Convincingly, at least after 90 minutes were up. When Liverpool clearly needed to make changes – both because of injuries and because what had worked wasn't working – Liverpool made changes which clearly improved the side, clearly improved the attack, and led to Liverpool winning those games.

The incredibly short version is that the diamond midfield has made Liverpool vastly more creative in the middle of the pitch. And that's where Liverpool's goal-scorers played and that's where Liverpool's goals came from and that's why Liverpool won.

Compare the chances created in yesterday's match to Liverpool's last loss against Crystal Palace.



Sure, it'd be even more reassuring to see multiple passes in and into the box, but still. It is not easy to break through a deep, deep, deep defense. And passes into the zone just outside the box, a handful of passes into the box, and maybe a throughball or two is a hell of a lot better than crosses, chips, and long balls. Finding space through movement and quick passes versus hoping to find space with hoofs and crosses and fortune.

Even before Wijnaldum's opener, Liverpool had created some decent chances, even if resulting in far too many shots from outside the box. Firmino in the first minute, Can narrowly missing the top corner in the 21st, a couple of efforts from Sturridge pushed not far wide of the post.

Then, Wijnaldum's timely goal. First, the goalscorer finding space in that important zone, receiving the out-ball from Lovren. Clyne to Firmino just outside the box, a deft layoff, and Wijnaldum continuing to move, those necessary runs into the box from deep, finished off with aplomb.

A quick aside for Gini Wijnaldum. Six goals and 11 assists in his first season; all six goals in the league, as well as nine of 11 assists. Goals against City, Chelsea, and Arsenal, assists against Arsenal and Tottenham. The crucial equalizer in first-half stoppage time against Burnley, the crucial opener in first-half stoppage time against Boro. Three assists in these final two matches, when Liverpool needed goals because Liverpool needed to win. We'll continue to complain about going missing in games, about struggles away from home and against parked buses and when there's no space in the opposition half, but good lord he's shown up when most necessary, in the biggest of games.

And after that opener, and as against West Ham, the opening goal created the space for more soon after the restart, both with sustained build-up and on the counter-attack. Coutinho's two goals and Origi's scrambled fourth at West Ham, Lallana's game-sealing third after Boro's corner, just like Liverpool's third at West Ham. And more goals is something which did not happen against either West Brom, Watford, or Crystal Palace despite scoring the first goal around the same time.

Liverpool have taken 25 or more shots just six times this season. Four matches in the first third of the season – all prior to Coutinho's injury – and these last two matches.

More shots, but also better shots, especially after getting the first goal. Better locations, higher percentages. And goals. Goals win games, now and forever. But not conceding goals certainly helps.

The last time Liverpool went four consecutive games without conceding was January-February 2011: 3-0 Wolves, 1-0 Fulham, 2-0 Stoke, 1-0 Chelsea. They were Dalglish's 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th games as Liverpool's caretaker manager after Roy Hodgson was fired. The last two were Luis Suarez's first two games for Liverpool. That's how long it's been. 2014-15 saw a four-match league run without conceding – 1-0 Sunderland, 2-0 Villa, 2-0 West Ham, 0-0 Everton – but with goals allowed in cup ties against Chelsea (twice) and Bolton in between.

Liverpool's big wins in these necessary final two games hasn't just been improvement in attack or just improvement in defense.



There has finally been a bit of balance. Liverpool aren't scoring at the same rate as the first half of the season – at least, not until these last two games – but Liverpool are conceding fewer. And that's despite allowing slightly more shots than earlier in the season.

Liverpool have been good at shot prevention all season long; only Manchester City have allowed fewer. As we're all aware, too many of those shots have been good shots, and too many have resulted in goals. Because of set plays, because of defensive lapses. And it was still somewhat of an issue yesterday: Bamford nearly winning a penalty, Adam Forshaw's two second-half clear-cut chances (albeit both after Liverpool had taken a 3-0 lead). Progression to the mean. Everything evens out over the course of the season, even if it takes until the final few games to do so.

A fair bit of credit goes to Simon Mignolet, who has saved six clear-cut chances in the final 10 matches of the season: one at City in a 1-1 draw, one against Everton in that 3-1 win, two at Stoke, one at West Brom, and one against Boro, denying Forshaw's first good chance just after Liverpool scored its third. Mignolet saved five clear-cut chances in his previous 18 league matches. City, Stoke, and West Brom were especially important, saves which made sure Liverpool left with one, three, and three points respectively. Had Liverpool dropped points there, Liverpool could be looking up at four rather than three teams.

So, for the first time in too long, we're ending the season on a high note. Not only winning the final match – something which hasn't happened since 2013-14, after Liverpool had already thrown away its chance at the title in the two previous games – but winning a final meaningful match. Winning to cement a chance to play in next season's Champions League proper. Winning while playing well at both ends of the pitch.

Winning to make this a successful campaign, Liverpool reaching its goal of finishing in the top four for only the second time the last eight seasons. And winning to give us more than enough optimism to sustain the next three months without football.

21 May 2017

Liverpool 3-0 Middlesbrough

Goals:
Wijnaldum 45+1'
Coutinho 51'
Lallana 56'

Liverpool did it.

When Liverpool needed to win two games to seal fourth place, Liverpool won 4-0 and 3-0, scoring as many goals in those two as they had in the previous six. Liverpool finished the season with four consecutive clean sheets. Liverpool finished the season with 76 points, Liverpool finished in fourth.

Liverpool didn't make it easy. Because Liverpool.

For 45 minutes, we were at wit's end. Manchester City were two goals up. Arsenal were two goals up. Liverpool were running into a brick wall, as it's felt we've seen again and again and again. Liverpool had 74% possession. Liverpool had taken 13 shots, but eight from outside the area, and none truly threatening. And Liverpool were lucky not to be behind after one of those all-too-frequent defensive breakdowns (*waves at Dejan Lovren*) with Bamford played in behind and Bamford tumbling in the penalty box but Martin Atkinson waving away appeals.

But then, as at West Ham, a moment of magic, a wondrous blitz, almost incongruous with what we'd seen previously. Matip out-muscles Gestede, Liverpool regroup. As has happened multiple times before. But this time, Wijnaldum to Clyne to Firmino to Wijnaldum, quickly worked down the inside-right, the goal coming from Firmino's deft lay-off, Wijnaldum's surging run and immaculate touch, and an utterly fierce near-post finish.

With just 30 seconds left before what would have been an infuriating interval.

Incidentally, that was Liverpool's third first-half stoppage time goal in the last six matches. Firmino at West Brom, Can at Watford, and Wijnaldum against Middlesbrough. All three absolutely necessary in breaking down a resilient defense. All three eventual match-winners.

And then, as at West Ham, Liverpool opened the floodgates and sealed the game in the 15 minutes after halftime. There was no panic, not as at 0-0. There was certainly. There was impetus. And there were goals.

First, Coutinho's direct free kick. As went Arsenal on opening day, so goes Middlesbrough on the final day. It was his third of the season, tying marks set by Suarez in 2013-14 and Gerrard in 2014-15. He'd scored just one in his Liverpool career prior to this season.

Then, counter-attacking excellence. Middlesbrough's corner ends with the ball in Middlesbrough's net. The corner swarmed and cleared by any means necessary, then Lallana tearing down the pitch with possession, Liverpool's five versus Middlesbrough's three. A slightly under-hit early cross, but *cliché alert* wanting it more on the second ball: Lallana wins the header, played directly to Wijnaldum, receives a header back, and tears through on goal, a smartly-taken left-footed finish into the far corner.

Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, Middlesbrough.

From there, a couple of chances to extend the lead: Guzan denying Coutinho, Firmino unable to set up Wijnaldum, and Wijnaldum volleying wide. A couple of chances for Adam Forshaw, Liverpool's back-line twice beaten worryingly easily, but chances untaken. Cameo appearances for Lucas and Moreno, a warm and hopefully not final send-off for Daniel Sturridge. But mostly comfort. Mostly relief. And mostly celebration.

Liverpool finish the season with 15 more goals scored than last season. With eight fewer conceded. With 16 more points. And four places better in the league table.

It is just the second time that Liverpool have finished in the Top 5 since 2008-09, let alone the Top 4. It is just the second time that Liverpool have taken more than 64 points since 2008-09, bettering that total by 12.

Liverpool's points total in those eight campaigns since? 63, 58, 52, 61, 84, 62, 60, 76.

Liverpool league finish in those eight campaigns since? 7th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 2nd, 6th, 8th, 4th.

Yes, yes, it's now up to Liverpool to prove this is the rule rather than the exception, as 2013-14 turned out to be. Yes, yes, Liverpool will still have to advance through a play-off to make the Champions League proper.

But we can worry about that in a couple of months. Right now, we're celebrating. Despite all the drama, all the torture, and all the weirdness over the last nine months.

And rightfully so.

20 May 2017

Liverpool v Middlesbrough 05.21.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 12.14.16
2-2 Liverpool pens (h; League Cup) 09.23.14
0-2 Boro (a) 02.28.09
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.23.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 West Ham (a); 0-0 Southampton (h); 1-0 Watford (a)
Boro: 1-2 Southampton (h); 0-3 Chelsea (a); 2-2 City (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 13; Coutinho 12; Firmino 11; Lallana, Milner, Origi 7; Can, Wijnaldum 5; Sturridge 3; Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Boro: Negredo 9; de Roon, Stuani 4; Ramirez 2; Ayala, Bamford, Chambers, Downing, Gestede, Gibson, Leadbitter 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson (LFC History) (WhoScored)

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

It's the last game of the season. And if Liverpool win it, they'll be in next season's Champions League. One match that could, without exaggeration, change the club's fortunes.

Just like the last match of last season.

No pressure, guys.

Oh, and, 0-0 Southampton, 1-2 Palace, 2-2 Bournemouth. Liverpool haven't won at home since April 1. They've won all four away games, surprisingly enough, but none at Anfield. Against sides who are currently 8th, 10th, and 13th.

At least Boro are decidedly worse than those three sides. Although it's not as if that's mattered much to this Liverpool side.

Roberto Firmino's at least in individual training, if not full team training, although that's been the case for more than a month now. And if he's available I suspect he'll replace Origi, although I'm not really bothered which of them starts; Origi did well with Sturridge last week and both can be valuable in changing tenor and tempo off the bench. The more important question is whether Liverpool sticks with the 4-4-2 diamond formation or reverts to 4-3-3.

Whether it's Firmino or Origi, I'm of an "if it ain't broke..." mind. Sure, it was only one game. But it was also the first time that Liverpool scored four goals in 2017. Scoring four goals, even if Liverpool had some fortune and some help, was good and fun. I'd recommend Liverpool do it again. This formation seems a far likelier proposition than any personnel variation of the 4-3-3 that Liverpool have deployed in recent months. But having Sturridge's movement up front, whether 4-3-3 or 4-Diamond-2, may well be more important as the formation, although I'll continue to maintain he's had his best moments at the club with a strike partner.

Meanwhile, Middlesbrough have won just one league match in 2017. One. Of 18, with seven draws and 11 losses. It was three weeks ago: 1-0, at home, against the only side lower than they are in the table. Boro have not been good this season. They are especially bad in attack, with only one player scoring more than four goals this season. Their 27 goals are the lowest in the division, barely behind Sunderland but well behind everyone else. They will be deservedly relegated.

That said, they can be a reasonably competent defensive side. They've conceded 50 goals, only eight more than Liverpool. Ten sides have conceded more, and their two other relegation compatriots have conceded 64 and 73. Five of Boro's seven 2017 league draws have finished 0-0. But five of those seven draws also came at home; Boro's 2017 away record is 2D-6L, two goals scored and 15 conceded.

Tomorrow's XI will probably be the same that lost 1-2 against Southampton last week. Guzan; Fabio, Chambers, Gibson, Friend; de Roon, Clayton, Forshaw; Bamford, Negredo, Downing. Victor Valdes and Gaston Ramirez are absent, while ex-Liverpool player Danny Ayala is doubtful. Maybe Adam Traore starts instead of Downing or Bamford; maybe Dimi Konstantopoulous starts instead of Brad Guzan – it's hard to be worse than Guzan, and I'm still comfortable writing that knowing how many opposition keepers have turned into brick walls against Liverpool.

Nonetheless, Gibson and Chambers can defend quite well. Clayton, de Roon, and Forshaw will hustle, bustle, and harry in their own half. And Boro will hope that Negredo can pull a rabbit from his hat at the other half maybe once or so. Or maybe Downing gets a set play. Or maybe Liverpool does a Liverpool.

So it's up to Liverpool. At home. Under an indescribable amount of pressure. Against a bottom three side who'll look to do nothing but defend and stifle and defend.

It, admittedly, is not my favorite scenario. And I cannot help but remind that Middlesbrough are the only relegated side that Liverpool haven't dropped points against.

But even though I can't help thinking about that, Liverpool can. Liverpool know what they need to do; the entire season's prepared for and led to this moment, this match, and they're coming off of an incredibly encouraging and vital result. And Liverpool are more than capable of doing it.