Aston Villa faced their third fixture in a week against top 7 opposition, after an emphatic victory over Arsenal and a narrow defeat to Chelsea. With the side looking a much greater proposition than last season, Villa will have gone into the game hopeful of achieving a rare home win over Liverpool, and lined up with the same starting XI as last week apart from Leandro Bacuna coming into central midfield to replace Karim El Ahmadi. Ashley Westwood sat deepest of the midfield three to keep Villa’s spells of possession ticking over, while Agbonlahor continued to threaten from the left with runs beyond Christian Benteke.
Liverpool came fresh from their dramatic opening day 1-0 win over Stoke with the same starting line up; Lucas and Steven Gerrard dovetailing as the central midfield two, with Coutinho coming in off the left to allow Aspas a central role in behind Daniel Sturridge.
A Game of Two Halves
In possession Liverpool looked to build from the back in the first half and control the tempo of the game from deep, waiting for the movement to click in higher areas of the pitch. They racked up 339 passes in the first half (more than 17 PL clubs achieved in a whole game this season) by playing patiently through the thirds, while there were clever movements from Aspas around and ahead of Sturridge, with both working back into the midfield when required.
The transition immediately upon winning possession was dependent on the circumstances in which it took place. Villa’s main threat comes from their counter-attacks, and therefore alongside Liverpool’s possession strategy there was also the option ‘counter the counters’. With Antonio Luna exploding forwards on the break, and the midfield three looking to initiate the attacks quickly, Liverpool could re-counter into the spaces vacated when possession was won. The key strategy was build from the back, get Toure and Agger split into wide positions, Enrique and Johnson into high positions and Gerrard or Lucas to drop into the hole to ‘reset’ the teams shape, and get the rotational movement going in the attacking positions.
Upon losing possession Liverpool’s strategy under Rodgers will always be to press immediately for 6 seconds. The high defensive line (only possible because of Kolo Toure alongside Agger) allowed the players to close the spaces quickly without compromising room in behind the midfielders who stepped in to press. If it wasn’t possible to affect the oppositions touch quickly enough to unsettle them and recover the ball the players fell back into their banks of four.
The second half showed a mature and dilligent performance, certainly in previous seasons the first half lead may have been an occasion where Liverpool got ahead of themselves and went in search of a rout, opening the game up and perhaps conceding in the process. The strategy instead was to solidify the defence, keep a 35 yard block in the second half and protect the lead, looking for opportunities to spring counters where possible and consequently completing far less passes in the second half.
Coutinho experienced a subdued game where he lost possession 21 times, only completed 73% of his passes and found it difficult to produce any moments of magic, however his struggle was more a consequence of the game Rodgers created after the goal. Despite Coutinho not shining he was still able to influence the game with his free movement. He drifted central to get on the ball as he does, and Lowton was uncertain about how to deal with him, as he varied his movement from wide on the touchline, high and central, to deep and central, making the full-back feel redundant.
A knock-on effect of this was Coutinho being left free for the goal. His awareness and communication with Sturridge in behind him allowed his dummy over the ball to put him in on goal, Enrique will go down with the assist but Coutinho must take huge credit for his part in the goal.
A key element of Sturridge’s play was his battle with Jores Okore, who made a total of 8 clearances (all successfully) with a decent performance but was dragged into awkward areas by Sturridge’s movement. He took up positions out to the left which created problems for Okore at centre back when he tried to follow Sturridge into the wide areas, a key factor in the goal. His finish was his only shot of the game, underlining an improving efficiency in the final third while the second half mainly consisting of hard defensive work. Below you can see which of the two sides was doing all the creating:
TCC (total chances created), CCO (chances created in open play)
This more protective second half approach gave Kolo Toure and Daniel Agger lots to do in keeping Christian Benteke quiet and limiting him to three shots (two on target). It was a man of the match performance from Toure who has been in inspiring form since his arrival, and the ‘average positions’ graphic shows Benteke and Toure practically glued at hip. Liverpool were then rescued late on once again by an incredible save from Simon Mignolet, who has only conceded 1 goal in the 9 games he has played since joining the Reds. You can read more specifically about Kolo Toure’s influence on the game here.
Liverpool now have two consecutive wins from their opening games for the first time since 2008, and will go into their clash with Manchester United in high spirits. With the possibility of Victor Moses joining the ranks and the return of Luis Suarez next month, the season appears to be ripe with opportunity, and while no Liverpool fans should be getting ahead of themselves, they remain unbeaten in their last 10 EPL games and there are increasing signs of the club beginning to turn a corner under Brendan Rodgers.