“It was a bad day at the office,” summed up Brendan Rodgers after overseeing one of Liverpool’s worst results at Anfield in recent years. In a battle between two transitional sides undergoing a shift in philosophies, Paul Lambert registered an emphatic win – a kind of win Rodgers has been longing for – to ratify the impressive work he had been doing at the Midlands club this season but with little to show for until now.
Liverpool were high on confidence after a three-match winning streak that included negotiating a tough fixture at West Ham without their talismanic striker Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan returned to the line-up after serving a one-match suspension, replacing an injured Jose Enrique.
Rodgers stuck to his usual 4-3-3 formation with Stewart Downing (who had an impressive match) as the left-back, Jonjo Shelvey as the left forward and skipper Steven Gerrard as the most attacking central midfielder.
Aston Villa, on the other hand, were unbeaten in five matches including an impressive mid-week thrashing of Norwich at Carrow Road in the League Cup quarter-final. The cornerstone of their recent success was Paul Lambert’s switch to a 3-5-2 – a formation somewhat forced upon him when skipper Ron Vlaar limped off in the goalless draw against Arsenal and left him with only two fit centre-backs.
Chris Herd, whose preferred position is right-back, once again tucked inside to make a third central defender alongside Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker, while Matthew Lowton and Eric Lichaj were deployed as wingbacks. It was a formula that had made Villa tough to break down – conceding only twice in the last five matches.
The two formations dictated the pattern of play. Liverpool were allowed time on the ball as Aston Villa sat deep and played exclusively on the counter-attack. The two teams went 3 versus 3 in the middle of the park. Liverpool’s two centre-backs were occupied by Villa’s two strikers in a 2 versus 2, but Villa’s three centre-backs had only Suarez to contend with in the centre in a 3 versus 1.
This meant that Liverpool’s wide men (wide forwards and full-backs) were free and the onus was on them to exploit Villa’s wingbacks and overload the penalty box which they did plenty of times but to no avail. Paul Lambert’s side was happy to allow the opposition to go down the flanks and cross into the box; perhaps, safe in the knowledge that none of Liverpool’s forwards were good in the air or predatory poachers.
Liverpool attempted a massive 43 crosses with an accuracy of only 21% which isn’t surprising considering Villa had three centre-backs stationed to thwart the danger. Steven Gerrard was the most accurate crosser (33%) but Stewart Downing attempted the highest number of crosses (12). Aston Villa stamped their aerial authority by winning 62% of the aerial duels.
Villa’s formation also allowed them to negate one of Liverpool’s favourite avenues of attack wherein Suarez’s movement draws a central defender out of position for others to exploit the space left behind. Clark kept a close eye on Suarez throughout the match and did not hesitate to follow the striker wherever he went, since he had two other centre-backs to cover for him.
Clark did a good job of keeping Suarez quiet, making 4 interceptions (highest in the match along with Lucas) and 1 successful tackle. Suarez, who is statistically the Premier League’s second-best dribbler after Hatem Ben Arfa, made no successful dribbles in the match which was another indicator of how well he was shackled.
A couple of times in the early stages, Liverpool’s quick pressing and Villa’s desperation to move higher up the pitch meant that the Reds caught the opposition out of shape but failed to make the crucial incisive pass in the final third. Suarez, notably, messing up a simple pass which would’ve sent Gerrard clean through on goal. Liverpool’s decision-making and shot selection in the final third were extremely poor throughout the match.
On the other hand, Villa were exemplary in the final third. They were relying on the strength of their target man Christian Benteke to bully Liverpool’s centre-backs and the Belgian, along with strike partner Andreas Weimann, obliged.
In a near-perfect performance, Benteke showcased a sensational all-round game. He scored a deadly strike from distance to open the scoring, produced a sublime backheel after a darting run to set up Weimann for the second and then rounded up the scoring for Villa by bulldozing his way into the box and hammering past Pepe Reina. It was the kind of performance you would expect from Luis Suarez, but Liverpool’s talismanic striker (now goalless in his last six appearances) put in a frustrated and wasteful shift.
|Benteke tormented Liverpool in a powerful performance|
The match stats are quite astonishing. Liverpool kept 72% possession and attempted 29 shots on goal (8 on target) compared to Villa’s 11 shots (6 on target). Villa made 54 clearances, only 211 passes (accuracy 69%) and tackled 25 times compared to Liverpool’s 13 clearances, 564 passes (accuracy 88%) and 11 tackles.
With so much possession, much of the Anfield side's problems stemmed from the lack of creativity in midfield especially when Suarez was misfiring. Earlier in the season, Rodgers claimed that Joe Allen would be an even better player when deployed in an advanced role but his claims aren't being backed up by the played on the field.
Both Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen didn't offer much of a goal threat or attacking invention in the final third and Jordan Henderson was too late in coming on. On top of that, Gerrard hasn't been on song either which made Liverpool's most potent attacking venue down the flanks - with Sterling and Johnson - and this played into Villa's hands.
Liverpool's midfield, in pursuit of goals, provided little protection to the defence. Rodgers was correct in observing where Villa’s goals originated from – “the first goal we gave the ball away in our half of the field and then our positioning wasn't great - Benteke gets the shot in too easily. The second goal we never tracked the runners into the box and the third, again, we gave the ball away in our own half.”
But to Villa’s credit, both the first and third goals started with a tackle high up the pitch – Lichaj stripping Suarez for the first, Brett Holman doing the same to Cole for the second.
This was no flash in the pan. It was a well plotted victory by Paul Lambert and a perfect demonstration of counter-attacking football by a well-drilled unit. While Liverpool looked directionless and devoid of ideas with the ball, each of Villa's players knew to the exact detail what they were expected to do with and without the ball.
Lambert was also rewarded for sticking two up front and confiding in his resilient defence. With backs to the wall throughout the game, Weimann and Benteke were sensational in providing the perfect outlet to execute Villa's plan. The latter, especially, tormenting Liverpool the way Didier Drogba has so often done in the past and justifying Lambert's continued preference for him over Darren Bent.
"Benteke has been unbelievable," gleefully remarked Paul Lambert after the match. So was this result for a manager whose team has now scored seven away goals against in-form opposition in the space of four days. Villa had come to Liverpool as the club with the league's worst scoring record, netting only four times on their travels.
Anfield, it seems, is a real fortress for an away team.
Don't forget to let us know your views in the comments section or discuss with the writer on twitter @Akarsh_Official
How do you stay up with football when on the move? With http://m.goal.com –your best source for mobile coverage of the beautiful game.