Aston Villa got a deserved win by exploiting Liverpool’s major weakness this season – defending the counter attack. It was a backs to the wall display from a young Villa side, who played with a back 5 to help get numbers behind the ball and prevent Liverpool’s attacking players from finding space.
Liverpool’s Fullbacks Find the Ball
With Villa’s formation and deep block, Liverpool’s fullbacks frequently saw the ball. Stewart Downing and Glen Johnson attempted the most passes of any player on the pitch, with Downing attempting 80 (completing 67) and Johnson attempting 77 (completing 65).
Incredibly, they attempted nearly three quarters of Aston Villa’s total attempted passes (157 vs. 211).Liverpool’s fullbacks were the providers of width for the Reds. This meant when they received the ball in wide positions the only passing options were inside. This suited Villa’s set up, which crowded the central areas of the pitch. Looking at Downing and Johnson’s passing directions, both had 50% or more of their passes going back inside.
Aston Villa Defends
The centre back trio, of Herd, Clark and Baker, had simple tasks – to defend. It is quite incredible to look at the passing statistics for the trio:
In 90 minutes of football, the three Aston Villa defenders attempted a combined total of 21 passing. To make this statistic more incredible, in the second half (which Aston Villa began with a 2-0 lead which increased to 3-0 shortly after the break) Herd, Clark and Baker attempted just THREE passes – Clark competing two passes and Herd having one incomplete pass.
Despite that, they performed 33 of Villa’s 53 total clearances, won 83% of their combined aerial duels (5/6) and 78% of their combined ground duels (7/9).
A perfect example of this disciplined, backs to the wall style defending is demonstrated below:
The Aston Villa back five (circled) crowd the penalty box, whilst Bannan, Westwood and Holman also support. This leaves nine Aston Villa players in the box versus Liverpool’s four (Sterling, Allen, Shelvey and Suarez). Once Sterling’s cross comes into the box, Aston Villa won initially won the ball but it did not clear the box. Interesting to this was the instinctive positioning of Clark and Lowton, who both retreated onto the posts whilst other Villa players moved towards the ball and cleared.
Holman’s Energy Key
Half of Villa’s game plan was to sit back with numbers behind the ball, which Liverpool played into by playing inside; the second half was to counter attack – which Villa did with incredible efficiency.
Key to this counter attacking approach was the energy of Brett Holman. With Weimann slightly right sided, but tasked with supporting Benteke, Holman was able to burst forward to create attacking options. Often, with Liverpool’s fullbacks being advanced, the trio of Holman, Weimann and Benteke could attack Skrtel, Agger and Lucas.
Daniel Agger drove forward with the ball and passed to Stewart Downing before continuing his run forward. Downing had limited options so dribbled the ball inside. His pass to Gerrard was anticipated by Holman who pounced and won back the ball.
Holman’s interception fell to Lowton, who advanced and clipped a pass into the channel for Weimann. This required Lucas to move across and close him down, leaving Benteke 1v1 with Skrtel.
Holman burst beyond Liverpool’s midfielders and into the box, receiving the ball from Weimann. Skrtel was then moved across leaving Benteke completely free on the penalty spot. Holman’s cut back clipped the heel of Skrtel and fell to Reina – Liverpool escaped a brilliant Villa counter attack.
Liverpool tried to play out. Joe Allen passed to Joe Cole, but Holman straight away pressed and regained possession. The ball fell to Benteke who could turn and dribble at Skrtel.
Holman then sprinted forward and ran on the outside of Benteke. As Benteke approached Skrtel, Villa had isolated him 2 vs 1. Skrtel over-compensated his positioning when trying to cover the Holman option, so Benteke skipped inside and finished beyond a helpless Reina.
Liverpool had 72.1% of possession and attempted 42 more passes in the final third then Aston Villa did all match (253 vs. 211), yet Aston Villa won 3-1. Despite all these passes, and having 27 shots, Liverpool didn’t create one clear cut goalscoring chance. Aston Villa made them pay. By sitting deep and crowding central areas, Villa forced Liverpool to attempt an incredibly high number of crosses (37) and Liverpool continued to try to move the ball inside. This played into Villa’s hands, and they could win back possession and counter attack – with Holman and Weimann getting forward to support Benteke, who held up the ball and worked the channels brilliantly.