Tag Archives: Aston Villa

Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: Positives and Negatives from Reds’ Anfield Draw

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

This Saturday, Liverpool hosted Aston Villa at Anfield in what turned out to be a thrilling Premier League match, as Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke had the visitors storming into a first-half lead before the Reds mounted a comeback via Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard.

Under pressure right from the start of the match, Liverpool got what their sloppy and uncertain play deserved when Weimann nipped in to score from a Gabby Agbonlahor cross, before Benteke doubled Villa’s lead 10 minutes after their first.

Sturridge’s finish to cap off some excellent combination play from the hosts was what they needed right on the stroke of half-time, and Gerrard calmly slotted away a penalty after Brad Guzan was adjudged to have fouled Luis Suarez in the box.

Here are eight positives and negatives from Liverpool’s draw at Anfield. Let us know your thoughts and views in the comments below.

 

The First Half Was an Indication of What Liverpool Still Lack…

All throughout the season, Liverpool have generally been solid against most opponents; their fourth-place standing in the Premier League will be an accurate reflection of that.

But against a certain style of team, the Reds have encountered an almost fatal Achilles’ heel: pace and power on the break, through the middle of the park.

So it’s no surprise that, after a comprehensive home defeat at the hands of Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, an unfancied Aston Villa side led by Paul Lambert were just one goal short of taking all three points at Anfield on Saturday.

To be sure, Brendan Rodgers’ tactical experiment backfired spectacularly—and we’ll have more on that later—but the deep prompting of Ashley Westwood and the power of Fabian Delph, allied with the pace of Agbonlahor and the industry of Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann, meant that the hosts just didn’t have enough in the tank to deal with an impressive first-half performance from the visitors.

If the Reds’ back four were on a whole unconvincing, it was the midfield that allowed Villa to storm in. After 22 league games, this remains a glaring problem for Liverpool.

 

…But the Second Half Showed How They Have Grown

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

All the same, credit must be afforded to the way the home side came back in the second half.

A flowing move deep in stoppage time in the first half, featuring an exquisite Jordan Henderson back-heel assist, ended with a clinical Sturridge finish and sent the Reds back to the dressing room with some encouragement.

And while Rodgers erred with his starting lineup, there was no prolongation of the same old problems when Lucas was introduced at the expense of Philippe Coutinho, which helped restore balance in the Reds’ approach play.

More importantly, and perhaps the silver lining from the game, was Liverpool’s mental resilience in mounting their comeback in the second half.

Regardless of whether their penalty was from a Guzan foul or a Suarez dive—and the debate will rage on for some time yet—a newfound aggression, not to mention familiarity with the system, was evident in the second 45 at Anfield.

 

The Midfield Is Still Alarmingly Short of Real Options…

But back to the midfield, which, when the dust settles from the two dropped points, is ultimately the root of the Reds’ current troubles.

The current senior central midfield lineup at Anfield stands as thus: Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen.

Glaringly missing from the quartet is a specialist defensive midfield with pace and capable of breaking up attacks and clean, crunching tackles to start counterattacks. The role of such a player cannot be understated: He provides the shield in front of the back four and alleviates both the midfield and defence by providing an additional safe outlet in the middle.

While all the noise after last weekend’s victory at Stoke City was about Steven Gerrard’s new role as holding midfielder, and while he even replaced Lucas in the latter’s now customary position, it was evident from the first 45 minutes that the captain just doesn’t have the legs or the cautiousness to excel in that role.

Henderson, tasked with being a defensive option, a midfield runner and an advanced attacking outlet, was simply overawed.

 

…But in Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling They Have the Future

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

On the bright side, Henderson replied to those who leveled at him the criticism that he shies away when his captain is in the same side with a mature and intelligent performance in the heart of the midfield.

While taking on the three aforementioned roles simultaneously was always going to be hard, he showed good responsibility tracking back and also inventiveness going forward, as shown clearly from his sensational back heel to set Sturridge up for Liverpool’s first goal.

So besides his famous work rate and never-ending harrying of his opponents, Henderson has also added flair and guile to his game.

Alongside him was another young starlet who had been written off for the majority of the 2013 calendar year. Raheem Sterling has been in exciting form since returning to Rodgers’ first team in December, and against Villa he turned in a performance that will have justified his manager’s continued faith in him.

Probably one of the few positives of the first half, Sterling then went on to cope well in a less familiar role at right wing-back in the second half, but yet he still timed his forward runs perfectly and showed his maturity and strength on the ball while doing his defensive work.

While the midfield is clearly in need of quality additions, in Henderson and Sterling—if they can keep up their development under Rodgers—Liverpool already have two key cogs in their ever-developing machine.

 

Brendan Rodgers’ Tactical Naivety Cost Liverpool Two Points…

Rodgers has rightly received many glowing plaudits from the way he has managed and grown this Liverpool side into genuine top-four contenders this season, yet Saturday will have been one of his lowest points as a Reds manager.

If not for the sheer reason that he couldn’t continue Liverpool’s momentum and home form, then definitely because it was his tactical naivety and proneness to tactical experimentation that cost his side two points.

The same fixture last season ended in an embarrassing 1-3 home loss to the Villans, and while Sturridge’s early goal handed Liverpool all three points at Villa Park back in August, the second half also saw the Reds kept at bay against an incessant and dominant Villa side.

After suffering the same fate against similarly fast and physical teams this season, Rodgers yet again faltered in selecting a weak midfield core of just Gerrard and Henderson, and in going with a conventional 4-4-2, left his left flank exposed with the rapidly deteriorating Cissokho and the weak Coutinho.

 

…But He Will Have Learned Painful Lessons

So Liverpool fans will be hoping Rodgers has come away from the draw thinking not only about their spirited second-half comeback but their shockingly disjointed first-half performance.

Twenty-two games in is not necessarily the time for Liverpool to be experimenting with new tactical systems, especially when their previous one had been working so well. They had just started seeing some impressive results.

Rodgers will also realize the importance of Jose Enrique and even Jon Flanagan’s imminent returns from injury, while Joe Allen can’t come back into the side quickly enough. And while Lucas might not be the best specialist defensive midfielder, it was his introduction that restored a sense of balance to the team in the second half.

A switch out to the left for Suarez with Sturridge as the central striker also didn’t have the desired outcome, though it was Suarez, of course, who won the equalizing penalty.

Having a fit and firing strike duo of Suarez and Sturridge would be the dream of many a Premier League manager, yet Rodgers needs to find a formula that can keep them scoring and assisting each other without adversely affecting the points on the board.

 

The Top-Four Race Has Now Been Blown Wide-Open Again…

In the immediate aftermath of the game, Liverpool remain fourth in the Premier League standings with 43 points on board.

With third-placed Chelsea on 46 having played a game less, there is already a small gap between the Reds and the top three of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, but Rodgers will now be looking nervously over his shoulder.

For both Everton and Tottenham can come dangerously close to Liverpool—and in the former’s case, even overtake their Merseyside rivals—if results go their way in the remainder of this Premier League weekend.

And if David Moyes finds a way to end Jose Mourinho’s impeccable home record at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Manchester United will suddenly storm back into top-four contention.

It’s a tight league this season, and the constant stress can’t be doing any good for everyone, especially the Liverpool manager.

 

…And Next Week’s Merseyside Derby Will Be Massive

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

As Tottenham look to continue their resurgence and possibly end Week 22 level on points (but with a vastly inferior goal difference), Liverpool will know that their main rivals to date are still Everton, who have impressed many pundits and fans with their enterprising and aesthetically pleasing style under Roberto Martinez this season.

Which makes the upcoming Merseyside derby on January 28 arguably one of the most important in recent seasons, simply because of the potential ramifications.

A thrilling 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture in November could well have ended in three points to the Red side if Allen had converted his easy chance, but it also showed the propensity of the Blues to score and come back. Liverpool required a returning Sturridge to save a point off the bench at the death.

While in reality there are only ever three points at stake, the proverbial “six-pointer” game applies more aptly to the 222nd Merseyside derby.

Liverpool’s next fixture will be an FA Cup tie against Bournemouth, but Brendan Rodgers can be forgiven if he is already setting his sights on the following Tuesday. It could define Liverpool’s season—and, indeed, even their short-to-medium-term future.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

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English Football Weekly: Week 4 Recap; Arsenal’s Resurgence; The Loan Market

EPL Week 4 Recap: Opposing Fortunes on Tyne-Wear, Villa Stumble, Shelvey Show

As the top six confirmed their status as the Premier League’s elite group with another series of predictable results this weekend (barring Chelsea’s 0-1 reverse at Goodison Park), let’s look at the so-called “mid-table” clubs, where the action is really getting interesting.

Starting with Tyneside and Wearside. Newcastle United were tipped for a chaotic season, especially after their controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as their Director of Football, but barring an opening-day drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they’ve actually been on the rise. Loic Remy looks like he’ll be a fine addition, while Yohan Cabaye’s return to the first team will be significant in the Magpies’ return to form. Hatem Ben Arfa stands out in what actually is a very decent squad on paper. And with seven points thus far, Newcastle stand proud.

Not so much over at the Stadium of Light though, which has surely seen many a fiery outburst from Paolo Di Canio in the Sunderland dressing room. Can you blame him? A solitary point in four games has condemned the Black Cats to the bottom of the table, but it is the manner of their defeats that should really be concerning. Di Canio’s latest public criticism of midfielder Cabral won’t help much, and their next five fixtures? West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea City, and the Tyne-Wear derby. It’ll be a long month and a half.

Not that Aston Villa have been faring too much better. After an impressive opening-day win at the Emirates Stadium, Paul Lambert’s side have lost their last three fixtures, albeit against tough opposition. Apart from a penalty scored by Antonio Luna on his debut against Arsenal, Christian Benteke has been their only scorer thus far, which means that for the team to climb up the table, the likes of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor need to start delivering the goods sharpish. A few challenging weeks ahead for Villa will test their mettle.

This wouldn’t be a very good weekly Premier League wrap if we didn’t mention Jonjo Shelvey and his impact on the Monday clash between Swansea City and Liverpool. If Man of the Match awards were really given to players who have an overall impact on a game, there wouldn’t be a finer candidate all weekend—or perhaps even all season—than Shelvey. After all, with a good goal and an exquisite assist, and two horrific passes, Shelvey was solely responsible for all four goals at the Liberty Stadium in an “excellent advert for the Premier League.”

Might Arsene Actually Know?

Four games, nine points, second place in the league. If it weren’t for Liverpool holding out for a point in south Wales on Monday, Arsenal would go into Week 5 as the league leaders, in what has been a quite remarkable turnaround of form and atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium.

We all remember the foul mood at the Emirates after their opening-day capitulation to Aston Villa and Christian Benteke, and Arsene Wenger will have found out that, for all of the technology and investment in a world-class stadium, it can be quite a nasty place to be. But three wins since, all accomplished in a quite comfortable manner—yes, even that one-goal win in the north London derby—and Arsenal are looking pretty good now.

Sure, Mesut Ozil will have been a key factor in turning around the Gunners’ attitudes, but even though he’ll no doubt inspire and win many points for his new club this term, he’s only been around for one of those wins. There are other reasons for Arsenal’s resurgence: the return to form of Aaron Ramsey, the maturing performances of Olivier Giroud, and an overall sense of immaculate teamwork and camaraderie in the dressing room.

Amidst all the hype and frenzy around Ozil—understandably and deservedly so, for he is one of the world’s best players—a quiet achievement by Wenger and his team is that they go to Marseille in the Champions League looking for a tenth straight win, which would be a club record. Confidence is brewing at the Emirates, and as ever, Arsenal just can’t be ruled out as a top-four team, even though they continue to be every season. And who knows? With further strengthening in January, they could become title contenders.

The Proliferation of the Domestic Loan Market

Cameron Jerome, Jason Puncheon, Kevin Phillips, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho, Loic Remy, Johan Elmander, Stephen Ireland, Oussamma Assaidi, Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng, Morgan Amalfitano, Scott Sinclair, Matej Vydra.

Thus goes the list of first-team loan signings arriving in the Premier League this summer. That’s almost an average of one player on loan in each first-team squad in the top flight, where we know the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea haven’t participated in such a system except in the “loan out” category, and that’s not counting those loanees who might not walk straight into the starting XI.

That the loan system is attractive, as a means for top clubs to farm out talent who need top-level experience and consistent playing time and for lower-ranking clubs to improve their results on the cheap, is well-known. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, now established Premier League stars, honed their talent on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Out of the 19 names in the above list, only four are from foreign clubs, and even then, two of them (Elmander and Vydra) have had experience in English football (with Bolton and Watford respectively).

But even bigger clubs are playing these days. Liverpool and Everton both have two names each, in the most high-profile representation of the benefits of the loan market to the Premier League as a whole. There have been suggestions that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead from the pack that they can now afford to loan players to the Merseysiders (Moses, Lukaku and Barry), but equally it shows that in an age of relative financial austerity, the loan market can reap its benefits.

We’ll take the coming months to gauge the impact of the loan signings this summer—and as they perform well, more details of their loan arrangements (e.g. whether there is an option to buy, etc.) will come to light—and that could make for an interesting analysis in itself, but as the transfer window slammed shut, the proliferation of the loan market manifested. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool: 6 Positives and Negatives

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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.