Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool: 6 Positives and Negatives

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Michael Steele/Getty Images
An exquisite goal from Daniel Sturridge sealed the points for Liverpool in what was a hard-fought afternoon at Villa Park, where the Reds managed to brave a second-half Aston Villa onslaught to take home a 1-0 win.

After their impressive opening weekend win against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, Villa put in an impressive performance against Chelsea, only to end the match empty-handed.

But Paul Lambert’s young side had already shown that their energy and pace would have the potential to cause opponents problems this season.

Liverpool traveled to Villa Park on the back of a 1-0 home win over Stoke City on opening day, an arena where the home side had secured just one victory in their last 15 meetings.

With the maximum six points after two matches, Liverpool have secured their best league start in five years, with Sturridge getting match-winners on both occasions.

What else did we learn from Liverpool’s victory on Saturday? Read on for our take on the positives and negatives from the match, and let us know your opinions in the comments below.

Daniel Sturridge with Yet Another Match-Winning Performance…

It’s tempting to say that it was all Philippe Coutinho, who allowed the goal to happen with his expert dummy on Jose Enrique’s pass, but in reality it was all Daniel Sturridge.

One shimmy, two shimmies, another rounding of the keeper, and—just as the ball looked like it was forced a little too wide—a quick swish of the outside of the left boot. 1-0.

More than a few shades of Luis Suarez to the goal, but for Liverpool fans, this shouldn’t be news anymore.

Daniel Sturridge has produced the goods time and again since his January move to Anfield from Chelsea, and after his blistering match-winning strike against Stoke last week, it was yet another Sturridge beauty that won it this time around.

However, it wasn’t just the goal that set Sturridge apart.

It was his hunger, his attitude, his work rate and his overall movement across the pitch, chasing down balls in the second half when Aston Villa had the majority of the possession.

But it will be his expertly taken goal that sticks with everyone until the visit of Manchester United, and rightly so.

Brendan Rodgers has since claimed, via the Telegraph, that Sturridge has all the tools in his locker to become the best English striker in the Premier League.

And why not?

On this form, Sturridge should be wearing the No. 9 shirt leading the line for England at the World Cup next summer, if passage to Brazil is secured.

…But Philippe Coutinho Must Learn to Deal with Extra Attention

If Sturridge stole the limelight and Philippe Coutinho seemed to take more of a backseat on Saturday, that’s because, in many aspects, that was indeed what happened.

The Reds came flying out of the blocks, and for the opening 40 minutes they took the game to Villa, playing an enjoyable possession-based style of football, but Coutinho was noticeably subdued.

Full credit to Paul Lambert and his charges, who already showed their admirable work rate and intense midfield pressure on Arsenal talisman Jack Wilshere at the Emirates last weekend. At the weekend, they appeared to replicate this tactic on that most influential and unpredictable of playmakers, Coutinho.

That his touch seemed to be slightly off didn’t help his cause, and that he helped create an exquisite goal by not touching the ball in the build-up further reflected an altogether quiet showing from the Brazilian starlet.

In a high-tempo match against a high-energy Villa team, Coutinho put in an admirable shift doing the defensive work, especially after Liverpool ceded possession of the ball to the hosts.

His tracking back was important, and his work off the ball will have impressed Rodgers.

It’s not just about the flashy stuff all the time, but Coutinho must surely be wising up to the fact that he’ll be attracting much more attention in his first full campaign in English football than he did in his first half season.

But that just shows the impact he’s made since arriving from Internazionale—and even good players are allowed a quieter game once in a while.

Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet Impress Again…

Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have enjoyed an impressive league record—losing just three out of 20 matches in the 2013 calendar year—and January signings Sturridge and Coutinho have captured most of the headlines.

But their new signings this summer will claim a bigger say in what happens for the second half of the year, and in these first two showings, Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet have already established themselves as fan favorites.

Let’s start with Kolo Toure, who followed up a strong performance against Stoke with another commanding display on Saturday.

Against the considerable pace, energy and power of Christian Benteke, who has carried last season’s form into this, Toure was impeccable. He also kept Benteke’s forward partners Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann quiet.

His pace, positioning and experience were on full display as he was at the center of a resolute Reds defence, especially in the second half when Liverpool sat back and defended more deeply.

His use of the ball and his passing game also caught the eye in the aesthetically pleasing opening 40 minutes.

Having earned Liverpool two points with his double save at the death last weekend—one of which was a penalty save against Jonathan Walters—Mignolet displayed his considerable shot-stopping abilities with impressive stops on Saturday, including a thrilling near-post parry of a powerful Benteke low drive.

So much for the negative impact that Jamie Carragher’s retirement and Pepe Reina’s loan departure to Napoli was supposed to bring.

In fact—whisper it quietly—maybe their replacements have even been an upgrade.

…But Lucas Exposes Himself as the Weak Link in the Team

Yet another Liverpool upgrade on show at Villa Park was defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva: He has seemingly recovered from his injury nightmare, and his performance levels have stepped up a notch from the unconvincing displays in the second half of 2012/13.

The problem is, even an improved Lucas has his faults, and more often than not, it was Lucas who threatened to shoot his team in the foot with a series of mistimed challenges and poor positioning in the midfield.

It is commonly said that Liverpool are another attacking player away from assembling a much more accomplished side capable of challenging for the top four—Brendan Rodgers has claimed, through the Guardian, that he is still on the lookout for a left winger—but reality dictates otherwise.

With Luis Suarez still to return, and Kolo Toure and Aly Cissokho providing experienced additions to the backline, Liverpool are balanced across the team, with the notable exception of the central midfield line.

The easiest reference was on show at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield trio of Mousa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue provided pace, energy, tackling, positional nous and attacking threat in a dynamic Spurs performance, even if life after Gareth Bale wasn’t the most inspiring in terms of chances created.

With Lucas marshaling the defence against Villa, it was his mistakes that led to a succession of set pieces that troubled the Liverpool box, while Benteke and co. were put through because of his lack of positioning.

If Liverpool are to build a competitive side capable of sustaining a challenge near the top of the tree, they must acquire an upgrade in the defensive midfield area. A decent squad player Lucas might be, but a top-four starter he is not. Etienne Capoue only cost Spurs £9 million.

Brendan Rodgers the Realist…

For the first 40 minutes or so at Villa Park, Liverpool were the embodiment of a Brendan Rodgers ideal:

Positive attacking movement, dynamic interchanging across the midfield and forward lines, patient distribution at the back, impressive maintaining of a high line of defence, constant pressing to win back lost possession and composed clearing of the lines across the floor.

Given the way that they sat back and absorbed the incessant pressure with a defensive line after the 40-minute mark, one could be forgiven for thinking that the players let complacency set in, never seized the initiative back, and had to ride out the storm as a result.

That would’ve been cause for an internal inquisition from Rodgers and his backroom team after the final whistle had gone.

Not so.

As it turned out, sitting back and defending more deeply was part of Rodgers’ game plan against a threatening and pacy Villa side, according to this BBC Sport report. Liverpool’s aim was “to just to keep our lines tight together and deny them many chances”—and they did just that.

Which is yet another encouraging step in the evolution taking place at Anfield since Rodgers’ appointment last summer.

From a team setting out to play a possession-based game perhaps a bit too stubbornly, Liverpool developed into a fearsome counterattacking unit with the help of January arrivals Sturridge and Coutinho.

And now they’ve even added a mean streak to their game that sees victory as the most important aim of all.

Brendan Rodgers, the philosopher, the ideologue…the realist? Who would’ve thought it?

…But Winning Ugly is Better Than Not Winning at All

As Liverpool prepare to take on Notts County in the second round of the League Cup on Tuesday, a sobering reality sets in: They are in this position because they didn’t manage to qualify for any European competition this season.

Or in other words, last season’s seventh-place finish was simply not good enough.

As club owner John Henry jetted in to deal with the Luis Suarez situation a few weeks ago, he will have reminded Rodgers of his objectives this season.

Indeed, in this Telegraph report, just as telling as his stance on keeping Suarez was his public pronouncement that he had high expectations and intended to “surprise people this year.”

Small wonder, then, that Rodgers has developed and integrated a more pragmatic side that sees victory just as important as the football.

To date, the 2013/14 Premier League campaign has yet to see the scintillating football that resulted in high-scoring margins like the 6-0 win at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park, and Daniel Sturridge is the only player to have scored in a Red shirt this season.

But a win is a win is a win. And three points is three points is three points.

As they look to progress through to the third round of the League Cup and then onwards to prepare for the visit of Manchester United this weekend, they’ll be aiming not to appear in the second round again anytime soon.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

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