We've been due an absolute mauling & sure enough Arsenal's demolition of Burnley fit the bill. Outshot by a ratio of 6:1, Burnley remain winless & painfully inadequate. Meanwhile, Arsenal have used a decent schedule to kick away their lesser shot totals from the last couple of years to now lead the league in shots & while they are shot heavy they're restrictive too. Their +/- is an average of 10, which is just dandy. If they could get their conversion levels up, in a muddling league so far, they might be looking at a simple run towards the top 4.
Talking conversion rates, last week's season low conversion totals aren't season low any more: 7% this week and a thrill free 17 goals prior to the Monday night fixture.
Stop confusing your players, Brendan
Liverpool's early season post-Suarez, minus Sturridge malaise continued as they hurtled towards a new nadir with a shot-shy effort up on Tyneside (6 shots!). On the numbers Newcastle looked value for their narrow win & have 'struck a rich vein of form' (regressed), 'improved recently' (regressed) or are 'pulling for Pards' (regressing) depending on which analysis you choose to read. They were never that bad and are now in the realm of perfectly average, where they will most likely continue to reside.
Liverpool are a different story. Their underlying numbers have been quite strong but weren't translating into anything like good performances & since dismantling Tottenham & losing Sturridge, they simply haven't looked good. After settling last year on a vibrant 4-3-3 with Suarez, Sturridge & Sterling in attack & a variant using Sterling just behind, it initially seemed that the same formation was to continue this year with a like for like substitution of Balotelli for Suarez. Lots of shots replaces lots of shots, can't fail right? And that was how they lined up against Tottenham.
Since then, Brendan has seemed reluctant to commit to two strikers or his formerly successful blueprint. We've seen the modern 4-2-3-1, which would be fine, except for the fact that against QPR Gerrard was shoehorned into the central attacking role of the 3. The 4-3-3 came back against Hull except Henderson & Coutinho were benched, a daft decision for the influential Henderson but a role to which Coutinho has become very accustomed. Indeed Rodgers appears very reluctant to play Sterling & Coutinho in the same team. In a study I did on Sterling earlier in the season, I was able to show that he is far more effective centrally or from the left than from the right (see here) and my thoughts on this were that Rodgers saw Coutinho & Sterling as best deployed in the same positions: the left peg of a front 3 or in behind a front 2.
Against Newcastle, Coutinho and Sterling started! However, in what may or may not be a coincidence, and in an experiment that will surely not be repeated Liverpool lined up initially in a 3-5-1-1 with Coutinho as the attacking midfield 1 and poor Raheem wide, wide right; a role that will never get the best from him. Why coincidence? Well, this mysterious 3-5-1-1 was the exact formation Hull used the week before when successfully stifling Liverpool. We know Rodgers likes to be flexible & innovative but surely there was more to this formation than following Steve Bruce's lead? With minutes to go & Borini & Lambert now on the pitch they nominally went 4-4-2; another formation?
Many more questions remain: are Liverpool the 7th best team in the land again like 2012/13 or are they better than that & just going through a rough patch? Did Rodgers get lucky with his strikers last year masking the true level of his team? Is managing any more complicated than having the better players & getting them to 'run about a bit'? Why doesn't Rodgers stop messing with his formations?
And this to me is the crux: Liverpool are not gelling because there is too much tactical tinkering. The lack of Sturridge is a big problem: he's genuinely world class & the attempt to integrate so many players has been difficult but fundamentally, Rodgers has forgotten the key tenets of his success last year. Maybe it's unavoidable? The ghost of Suarez looms large. Regardless, performances such as the matches against QPR, Hull & Newcastle are so far away from the verve & panache of last season so as to be unrecognisable. However, unlike the wide media, I would be reluctant to blame Mario Balotelli, rather give the lad a bit of help.
An enjoyable and
contentious derby match in which the referee evened out the last City
home game against Tottenham (ref gave everything) by giving precisely
zero decisions including loads of clear cut penalties. Despite this, the
Gods of Football saw justice was done & City's superiority was
underscored at 1-0.
I noticed a couple of things during
the match that have escaped the general analysis. Van Persie's decline
has been widely noted recently & again he was unable to influence,
by and large because for large
parts of the game he appeared to be running through treacle. His ability to finish isn't in question, but
battered by injuries throughout his career, his speed to find clear cut
opportunities appears to have vanished.
Also: Rooney. Time
and again ( I counted 4) that irritating floated pass out to the wing
so beloved of the quarterback type. It looks nice when it comes off,
but it's generally slow, easily readable for the defense & rarely
enhances the play. Somebody tell him he isn't Pirlo.
Obligatory Tottenham bit
This week, in football's most unpredictable soap opera, Tottenham found a new way to lose a game. This time, they were widely predicted to annihilate a formerly dismal Villa side, but conceded early, never looked like they were going to create anything and limped out of Villa Park with a 0-1 defeat. Pochettino tended his notice & Tim Sherwood was quickly parachuted in to his new role as 'Lord & Master of the Free World' & immediately announced that Aaron Lennon would be 'key to help avoid relegation.'
In a different universe, the spirit of Gareth Bale was evoked by none other than fan favourite Harry Kane. His blistering (read: deflected) last minute free kick secured 3 points and took the storyline in a vastly different direction.
Game states are a distant second to results in informing fan opinion but are nonetheless influential in shaping post-match discussions. The obvious dialogue against Villa, primarily because Tottenham spent 89 minutes not winning, has been something resembling this:
'We were shit, they scored, nearly everyone had a bad game, we would never have won if they weren't down to 10 men.'
...and I can understand that view but even before the sending off, Tottenham had most of the game & had created good viable chances. By the end the numbers were well skewed towards Spurs & the result fairly represented the overall balance of the game. Although Villa and specifically Benteke went close on a few occasions, their only shot on target went in, was not savable & Lloris didn't make a single save (Nor did he last week). That's defensively encouraging! Things I remain bemused by include the opposite of the Liverpool problem; in this case, why play 2 strikers? And more pertinently, why were neither of them Harry Kane? Pochettino's system isn't built for 2 up front and so we had a strange & narrow 4-4-2 going on rather than the 4-2-3-1 i'd expected (Good pick, Mike). Sadly neither Lamela or Kane were starters today, a fact I can only rationalise by presuming that they are now delegated as 'special teams' and will come on regularly, late on, to win matches. Interestingly, they were the two players standing over the ball for the decisive free kick. Also, for a coach so wedded to a system, the old 'withdraw your defensive midfielder for a winger' tactic seems just a bit too Redknapp for my modern inflexible football brain to comprehend.
So, a reprieve, a healthier place in the league table (8th) and a non-threatening set of fixtures to follow, only punctuated by a match against Chelsea this side of Christmas. Are things going badly or well? I really couldn't tell you.
Thanks for reading!
I've also done an article looking at how conversion rates (amongst other things) drive media storylines. Check it out here