Tag Archives: Lucas Leiva

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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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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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.

5 Ways Liverpool Should Approach a Tough December to Stay in the Top Four

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Second place, 15 matches played, 30 points, and a goal difference of +16. With four games left to go until the mid-season (and the January transfer window), Liverpool so far look in pretty good shape this 2013/14 Premier League season.

Their average of two points per game, if extended over the course a 38-game season, has historically been enough to secure a top-four spot by the end of the season—which, besides launching Liverpool back into the Champions League spotlight, should also be enough to secure Luis Suarez’s future at Anfield.

Before we look ahead to next May, however, let’s first acknowledge the obstacles to the Reds finishing their first half of the season in the top four—and there are many.

Starting with their remaining four fixtures in a busy December period—Tottenham Hotspur (away), Cardiff City (home), Manchester City (away), Chelsea (away), the latter two coming in the space of three days.

With Jose Enrique and Daniel Sturridge both out until at least January and Steven Gerrard sidelined for the Christmas period with a hamstring injury, according to the Telegraph, Liverpool’s problems are as much on the treatment table as they are with the fixture list.

But this is also a crucial period where Brendan Rodgers’ team will be tested on their ability to stay near the top, and where preliminary conclusions may yet be drawn about their quest to return to Europe.

Here are five ways Liverpool should approach a tough December ahead of them and still fly high in the top four come the start of January.

 

Keep Their Second-Half Setup Against West Ham

With the aforementioned Enrique, Sturridge and Gerrard out for the Christmas period, Liverpool’s best XI for the moment will have been their second-half, post-Gerrard substitution setup in Saturday’s game against West Ham United.

Glen Johnson seemed back to his best, and indeed was the provider of a very fine assist to Luis Suarez for Liverpool’s third goal of the night, while Jon Flanagan on the opposite flank stuck to his task and defended confidently.

Martin Skrtel looked more assured and assertive with the dominant Mamadou Sakho beside him, and with stability being the key in a defensive partnership, Brendan Rodgers would be wise to stick with them in the center, though the shambolic defending in conceding their own goal—in the process letting the Hammers back into the game—will have been a cause for concern.

Joe Allen in front of them was a livewire in midfield, seemingly over his catastrophic miss in the Merseyside derby a couple of weeks ago. If he continues his improvement, his probing passing and deceptively quick turn of pace should prove a very useful additional outlet in midfield, alongside the more workmanlike duo of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva.

Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez pick themselves in the starting XI, while Raheem Sterling deserves a run in the side for his upturn in form and encouraging showing on Saturday, especially with Victor Moses’ cameo once again not providing any kind of imagination, creativity and game-changing potential.

The only change that should be considered by Rodgers and co.—besides any enforced through injury concerns—would be to shift Johnson over to the left and put Martin Kelly in on the right, especially against pacy right wingers that Flanagan might struggle against.

Otherwise, this is a team that can be decent at the back, strong in the middle and incisive up front.

 

Adopt a Relentless and Interchanging Midfield Three

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It’s hard to imagine a Liverpool midfield without Steven Gerrard in it: He’s been ever-present for the Reds this season, and is both their assists leader (six) and third highest scorer (three).

Whether his world-class set pieces and impressive long passes compensate for his decreasing mobility has been a hot topic for debate (and best left for another discussion), but his more withdrawn, “quarterback”-like regista role has come with a diminishing ability to take games by the scruff of the neck and drag his team to victory.

Which means that in his absence, Liverpool fans may yet catch a glimpse of an ideal Brendan Rodgers midfield. To be precise, a relentless, dynamic and interchanging midfield three capable of supplying incessant pressure on their opponents, recycling the ball among one another, and contributing comfortably to the attack.

After his aforementioned horror miss against Everton in November, Joe Allen has rebounded in terms of his confidence, putting in good performances echoing his encouraging start to life at Anfield back at the start of the 2012/13 Premier League season.

His reverse pass to Martin Kelly in the dying minutes of the West Ham match on Saturday was a particular highlight, but it was his forward-thinking passing, neat touches and ability to move the ball out of pressure that caught the eye.

Add in the dynamism and famous work rate, as well as the at-times scintillating passing (though consistency is necessary) of Jordan Henderson, and Liverpool have got a young, energetic and deceptively quick British midfield core. And while Lucas hasn’t fully reclaimed his excellent pre-injury form, his positioning and tactical awareness have been triumphed by Rodgers (and are debated constantly among Reds fans).

Altogether, the Gerrard-less midfield that will travel to such opponents as Spurs, City and Chelsea will exhibit a stark contrast to the captain’s prompting from deep.

Which can mean that Liverpool are short of a sure-fire set piece specialist. But also that their opponents now have to focus on defending against an interchangeable unit instead of one single playmaker.

 

Continue to Refine Their Counterattacks

Pepe Reina he might not be just yet, but Simon Mignolet has been earning rave reviews for his improvements in distribution: A couple of quick long throws set up dangerous counterattacks for his teammates on Saturday.

(Needless to say, Mignolet’s shot-stopping has already far exceeded Reina’s levels of the past few seasons.)

And Arsenal they might not be just yet, but Liverpool have evidently worked on their counterattacking plays to make use of their pace in attack.

Previously it was in the 3-5-2 system that featured Suarez and Daniel Sturridge up top. But against West Ham, as in his stellar start to his Liverpool career, it was Raheem Sterling who frequently burst through the opposition midfield and rush onto passes down the center. If it weren’t for his lack of a clinical finish, the home side would have scored at least two more from those breaks.

As dominant as Liverpool aspire to be in ball and possession retention, there’s no reason to discourage them from working on breaking, attacking and scoring at speed. Even without Gerrard’s 40-yard passes to feet, they possess accomplished passers like Allen and Coutinho, and with the inventiveness of Suarez and Sterling, the counter should be a Liverpool staple.

Especially in away fixtures against teams who like to overload in the attack and pile up in their final third, exactly Liverpool’s big upcoming tests at White Hart Lane, the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.

If Liverpool can withstand some inevitably strong attacks from their hosts, they should look to capitalize on their relatively soft underbellies and hope to snatch goals—and points—that way.

 

Improve Decision-Making and the Final Ball

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With 20 goals in their last five matches at home, it wouldn’t seem on the surface that Liverpool need work on their finishing and final ball.

Indeed, Luis Suarez needs to be given lots of credit for his massive improvement in finishing off his chances. In the context that he used to be a profligate striker who often frustrated Reds fans with his poor finishing, this article from BassTunedToRed.com tells us that his conversion rate has jumped from 8.2% in the Kenny Dalglish era to a staggering 25% this season.

But even though they scored four goals against West Ham on Saturday, there was ample evidence, especially in the first half when the visitors shut up shop in front of their penalty area, that Liverpool took one touch too many or played one pass too many.

Coutinho continually decided to attempt to play a colleague into space when shooting from range would’ve been more beneficial, while Sterling’s final ball, even when sent through on goal, seemed to be just lacking in confidence.

And we don’t have to go too far back to see a glaring example of Joe Allen’s composure in front of goal, or Jordan Henderson’s lack of an assured finish at the end of a lung-busting run at Arsenal, to know that this is an area where Liverpool still need to improve on.

Given their proneness to conceding from just one solitary defensive mistake, they should work on taking their chances when they create them. Against smaller teams that they’ve admittedly demolished in recent weeks, chances will come by simply because of their relentless pressure and approach play, but goal-scoring opportunities will be few and far between in the coming few weeks.

Of course, 1-0 is all it takes to take home three points, and Liverpool started their season off with three well won, if not entirely convincing, 1-0 wins, which featured lots of deep defending. But to do that, besides holding firm and keeping a clean sheet, you need to take that one chance when it comes by.

 

Approach Tough Away Matches Fearlessly and Confidently

With 34 goals scored in 15 league games thus far—the second most in the Premier League—it’s clear that when Liverpool feel like it, they can turn on the style and blow opponents away with their attacking play.

A large part of that—nine goals, to be exact—is admittedly down to the now-injured Daniel Sturridge and his impressive all-round contributions up front for the Reds this season, but Luis Suarez’s form and the overall cohesiveness in attack means that they remain an offensive force to be reckoned with.

So why did they go to the Emirates and come away with a comprehensive 0-2 loss when they could’ve started the game on the front foot if they’d been set up to do so?

A look at Roberto Martinez’s impressive setup at Everton shows that a consistent mental, technical and physical approach, once ingrained throughout the squad (which includes the coaching staff and management team), can take their game and impose it on whichever opponents they come up against.

They’ve done it against Manchester United, and they did it just this Sunday night with a fearless, confident and assertive display at the Emirates, when they forced a 1-1 draw against league leaders Arsenal.

Brendan Rodgers will realize that his squad has deficiencies—which squad doesn’t?—but he will also know that keeping the same identity in whatever fixture can reap large benefits and may even spring the odd surprise.

Just look at Liverpool’s trip to Manchester City last season. Granted, City weren’t managed by Manuel Pellegrini then, and Liverpool had a Steven Gerrard blockbuster to thank, but if Pepe Reina hadn’t rushed off his line, the visitors would’ve taken home an impressive 2-1 win.

More of that please.

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

Arsenal vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch This Saturday

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Before the Capital One Cup rolled around this midweek, Arsenal and Liverpool were heading toward Week 10 of the English Premier League in good spirits and fine form, having dispatched confident wins last Saturday.

But Tuesday night saw Jose Mourinho continue his impressive record over Arsene Wenger, with Chelsea knocking Arsenal out of the Capital One Cup with a 2-0 away win at the Emirates Stadium.

Not that the first-team’s momentum should be dented in any way, given that it was a trademark Wenger B team selection on Tuesday, but suddenly the mood among Arsenal fans has turned just a little tenser, a little testier, while the Liverpool camp are starting to feel optimistic again.

Saturday will see the league-leading Gunners welcome the visit of the third-placed Reds in a surefire spectacle. Let’s look ahead at six key battles that will have a huge say in where the points go at the end of the 90 minutes.

 

Per Mertesacker vs. Luis Suarez

Here’s the current situation: Per Mertesacker on form is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Luis Suarez on form is one of the best forwards in the Premier League. Both are on form playing in teams that are riding high.

But how will this duel turn out?

Mertesacker excels in his positioning, aerial dominance and composure. Suarez has all three in abundance—his two headed goals in the recent victory over West Bromwich Albion, especially his first one, were of such superlative quality that they’ve surely added “heading” to his skill set—but it will be his unpredictability and propensity to pop up almost everywhere on the pitch that will make things tough for Mertesacker.

Add the other half of the SAS strikeforce, and the Arsenal defence may have a huge in-form headache on their hands.

 

Laurent Koscielny vs. Daniel Sturridge

So this brings us to the other half of the equation.

Laurent Koscielny has been a standout at the back for Arsene Wenger in recent seasons, and his pace and tackling have been rightly praised as he’s established himself as one of the most consistent defenders in the league.

But he’s up against a Daniel Sturridge surging with confidence and self-belief, well on his way to becoming a top international-class striker, and with a new-and-improved Luis Suarez alongside him to help.

The constant movement and interchanging of Sturridge and Suarez will present a nightmare to all four of Arsenal’s defenders on the day, and their barnstorming form—Sturridge has a league-topping eight league goals with Suarez having scored six in four games—means that keeping a clean sheet at home will be no mean feat.

 

Aaron Ramsey vs. Steven Gerrard

Thankfully for them, Arsenal have got a brilliant midfield to take the spotlight and pressure off their defenders, and despite Mesut Ozil’s high-profile arrival (more on him later), no one has hogged more of the headlines surrounding the Emirates than Aaron Ramsey.

With five goals (from just 21 shots) and four assists in just nine league games, Ramsey has stepped up his game several notches, in the process becoming one of the Premier League’s most in-form and all-round box-to-box midfielders.

Which, curiously, is the kind of form and description that used to be attributed to his opposite number on Saturday.

Steven Gerrard delivered an impressive midfield performance as one half of an advanced pressing pair against West Brom, but he may find himself looking on at Ramsey and reminiscing the years (and legs) gone by if his colleagues don’t afford him enough support.

 

Jack Wilshere vs. Jordan Henderson

Ramsey has been in such peerless form that Jack Wilshere, erstwhile Arsenal’s “Golden Boy,” has had his mantle taken off him by the Welsh international.

But while Wilshere’s displays this season have yet to reach the lofty heights that his early performances suggested he would consistently, he has still been a useful outlet in the Arsenal midfield, and his movement, passing and now goalscoring will represent a threat against Liverpool.

He will find himself up against the Reds’ unsung hero this season in Jordan Henderson, who has run his socks off delivering relentless pressure toward opposing midfields.

Henderson’s energy will be essential to nullify the talented Wilshere—and with Philippe Coutinho likely to start on the bench after his injury layoff, he will have to provide a creative spark too.

 

Mesut Ozil vs. Lucas

But if there were one key battle to triumph over all key battles, it would be Mesut Ozil’s against Lucas in Arsenal’s attacking midfield.

A fluid and dynamic Gunners midfield has Ozil as its tip, and he has shown in his two months in the Premier League that he can influence any game and wreak havoc with his movement, vision and passing.

So it’s just as well that Lucas has seemingly returned to form at the right time. His anchoring of the flipped midfield against West Brom was his finest performance in many a month and will need to be repeated on Saturday.

Brendan Rodgers will have it drilled into his team that the Arsenal midfield isn’t just about Ozil: His masterful manipulation of space brings his midfield colleagues into play and into threatening positions, and Lucas will need the three center backs behind him to provide as much support as he can get.

 

Olivier Giroud vs. Martin Skrtel

Speaking of space and movement, there’s no finer No. 9 around at the moment than Olivier Giroud, currently on five goals and four assists in the league (just like Aaron Ramsey).

After a decent first season at the Emirates, Giroud has blossomed this term and has struck up a productive understanding with his supporting acts, and Ozil’s arrival and Santi Cazorla’s return has only augmented the attacking setup.

On paper, it’s just the one out-and-out striker that Liverpool’s three-man defence has to deal with, but in reality, when Arsenal move forward as a unit, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho will need to be at their best to keep the hosts at bay.

Especially Skrtel, the man who has kept vice-captain and recognized cultured center back Daniel Agger at bay in recent weeks. Brendan Rodgers has hailed Skrtel’s resurgence in form, according to the Liverpool Echo, but Giroud will have something to say about that.

 

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