Monday, 7 March 2016

Crystal Palace 1-2 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

With half an hour to play at Palace, it looked as if it was going to be another joyless trip to Selhurst for Liverpool. An early second half goal for Joe Ledley had left the visitors in trouble, and the problems were seemingly compounded when James Milner was sent off after a needless second yellow. However, this seemed to spur Liverpool on – they were by far the better side after being reduced to ten, and stole a victory in the dying seconds of the game with a dubious penalty won and converted by substitute Christian Benteke. It probably was a spot kick, but the element of doubt only served to make the victory sweeter – the anger of Pardew and the Palace fans is some measure of revenge for the infamous 3-3 draw. Liverpool are now just six points off the top four, and can move to within five of Arsenal with a victory in their game in hand: although it is a long shot, it means the season is suddenly far from over after all.

In many ways it was an odd match. The first twenty minutes or so were full of promise for Liverpool: they played some lovely flowing football and created multiple half-chances, only being denied clear-cut opportunities by their tendency towards over-intricacy in the attacking third. Admittedly the defence looked shaky; Palace looked capable of getting a goal or two, coming extremely close through Adebayor after a Lovren error, but it seemed likely that Liverpool’s front line would be able to counteract this. However, this pattern of play gradually stopped – by the half-hour mark the defences were very much on top, with Palace in the ascendency going forward. Only dominant performances from Sakho and, after a poor start, Lovren, prevented the home side from taking the lead before half time; they won the vast majority of their aerial battles, and doubled up well with the full-backs where necessary to nullify the threat of Zaha and Bolasie. This is the second week in a row where Lovren has been worthy of singling out for praise: it would perhaps be premature to say that he is now looking like a 20 million pound defender, but at the very least he no longer looks out of place in the team.

Nevertheless, Palace were able to take the lead very early in the second period. Predictably, it was from a corner: it looked as if the danger had been cleared, but a poor touch from Firmino fell favourably for Joe Ledley. Despite not having scored in over a year the midfielder inevitably came up with an excellent finish, driving the ball beyond Mignolet and into the corner. Having not threatened in any meaningful way since the opening exchanges, things were not looking promising for Liverpool; Jurgen Klopp apparently felt the same way, opting to bring off Jon Flanagan and replace him with Coutinho. This is about as far from like-for-like as it gets – it probably gave Van Gaal some sort of fit – and it certainly signalled the manager’s attacking mindset. Just seconds later, however, he was forced into another major re-think when James Milner picked up a second yellow card for a completely brainless challenge in an area of no particular danger. The formation after this was essentially unrecognisable: the visitors went to a back three, but with two of the defenders –Moreno and Lovren - essentially playing at wing back rather than centrally. Fans have become accustomed to Moreno’s marauding runs, but do not expect them from Lovren; he was a revelation down the right, with his committed performance epitomised by an inch-perfect challenge to rob Souare deep in Palace territory. Emre Can was also immense. He seemed to be absolutely everywhere after the sending off, simultaneously a sweeper and playmaker. He is becoming quite a player, and it is exciting to see how he develops. Even so, the hosts should surely have found a way of capitalising on Liverpool’s makeshift, open back line. Instead they panicked, allowing the visitors to come on to them: it was as if they had just got a man sent off. This fear was evident in the manner of Liverpool’s equaliser – goalkeeper Alex McCarthy failed to deal with a fairly routine back-pass, gifting the ball to Roberto Firmino. He made up for his earlier poor touch, controlling the ball beautifully before coolly slotting the ball beyond McCarthy and into the corner.

At this point Palace were in limbo: a point against Liverpool would have been a good result for them considering their woeful form of late, but with the extra man they felt that they could get more from the game. Instead of shutting up shop and seeing out the last few minutes they continued to come forward – Sako and Gayle were introduced to inject pace into the attack. Gaps were subsequently left at the back - despite a late defensive switch from Klopp that saw Toure replace Firmino, Liverpool showed no signs of wanting to settle for a point. The manager highlighted this after the game: although Palace largely gifted Liverpool the three points, the team still showed great spirit to push on. With just a minute of added time remaining, Henderson picked out Benteke with an inch-perfect pass: the Belgian showed a rare piece of good movement to get on the end of it, then went down under the challenge of Damien Delaney. It was a ridiculous tackle to make – Benteke was running harmlessly towards the by-line, and could simply have been shepherded out. Delaney tried to pull out of it but his knee caught Benteke’s foot: the striker went down, and after consulting with his assistant Andre Marriner pointed to the spot. Benteke himself stepped up to take the penalty: he showed incredible nerve to execute a perfect stutter penalty, making McCarthy commit then putting it the other side. He may not have had the best of times since joining for Liverpool, but the £32.5 million was all worth it to get one over on Palace like this.

The result means that Liverpool continue to make their league position look more favourable: they are the most in-form side over the last five games, and that turnaround in fortunes is reflected in the fact that we are now just six points off a Champions League space. Even though snatching a fourth place finish late on is highly implausible, it is no longer beyond the realms of possibility: this gives the team something to play for, and will prevent the season from simply petering out. With the Europa League clash to come against United on Thursday, there are bound to be plenty more exciting moments still to come in this campaign.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City: Post-Match Analysis

After Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City in the Capital One Cup Final, Liverpool hosted them at Anfield with one objective: revenge. Certainly the Reds seemed very motivated: they worked harder than their opponents from the outset, and in doing so earned an emphatic 3-0 win. Not only did this bring immense satisfaction after the loss on penalties, it also brought a possibility of unlikely redemption in the league; the win moved Liverpool to just six points off fourth, with a game in hand on all of the teams above them bar City themselves.
Even more important than the potential rekindling of top four hopes is the level of performance Liverpool showed they were capable of. It was probably the best performance since Klopp’s arrival, and it encapsulated the German’s philosophy: the players pressed in organised packs, limiting City’s time and space effectively and hustling them into mistakes. Milner and Lallana, both much maligned at times in their Anfield careers, put in excellent performances – they tirelessly chased down balls, and were rewarded with a goal apiece. Lallana opened the scoring with an opportunistic low drive into the corner that caught out Hart, with Milner topping off a lovely flowing move for the second after latching on to a Firmino flick. The ex-Hoffenheim man was also excellent: he looked dangerous whenever he got the ball, and capped off the rout with a cool finish after a clever ball into him from Lallana.
In contrast, the City attack looked toothless. The Liverpool back line was not a familiar one – Jon Flanagan started on the right with Clyne playing out of position at left back, while Toure and Lovren were the centre-back pairing. It was Flanagan’s first start since 2014, but he put in an excellent performance; aside from a couple of poor passes in dangerous areas, one of which was largely down to Henderson’s ball putting him under pressure, he didn’t put a foot wrong. He was particularly effective at keeping Raheem Sterling quiet – much to the glee of Liverpool fans, he repeatedly robbed him of possession and even knocked him to the ground. Sterling looked completely ineffectual, and was replaced by Bony at half-time. By the sixty minute mark Pellegrini had three centre-forwards on, with Ihenacho replacing Fernandinho, but still they could not trouble a resolute Liverpool back line. Klopp singled out Toure for praise after he managed to make up a lot of ground to rob Aguero: the Ivorian is in the last year of his contract, but has surely shown in recent weeks that he still offers enough to warrant a one year extension. At any rate, he will have given the club food for thought. Lovren, too, is starting to change people’s minds: he is starting to settle at the club, and put in an assured display in this game.
Another player beginning to adapt to life at Liverpool is Divock Origi. He has now clearly established his position ahead of Benteke in the pecking order; Sturridge was never likely to start after completing the full 120 minutes on Sunday, and sure enough Origi was the one named in the starting eleven. Although he was not directly involved in any of the goals, the 20 year-old showed his potential: he tirelessly ran across the back line, constantly keeping the City defenders occupied. He is regularly compared to compatriots Benteke and Lukaku, but this is a lazy equivalency to draw – in fact he bears more resemblance to Sturridge, albeit with more power to his game. His movement is excellent, and he has shown flashes of great technical ability on the ball: certainly he is an exciting talent.
This game will not just have given Liverpool fans hope of a bright future – there is now a remote but distinct possibility that something could be made of our Premier League campaign. Liverpool have a game in hand over all but one of the teams above them and currently sit six points adrift of fourth: this is by no means an insurmountable margin. The likelihood is that our chronic lack of consistency will prevent us from mounting any serious challenge for Champions League place, but with the form of the current top four it cannot be ruled out.

 Even if we do not, however, there are still plenty of things to be positive about. Jurgen Klopp is starting to impose his philosophies on the side, and as a result performances and indeed results are gradually picking up. He is also the most likeable, relatable manager we could possibly have hoped for, as well as arguably being the best coach in the league. This is a great combination, and one that could truly lead to the return of Liverpool as a European footballing force. In the short term, we are still in the Europa League and have every chance of progressing against United: the Capital One Cup may be gone, but Liverpool Football Club is on the up.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013