Liverpool have been widely tipped to be in the mix for a UEFA Champions League spot this season and they couldn’t have started their quest any better after securing back-to-back wins against Stoke City and Aston Villa.
The Merseysiders have recruited well in the summer as Brendan Rodgers continues to build a competitive side that epitomizes his possession-based attacking philosophy on the pitch.
He’s blended the youth with the experience, the home grown with the marquee signings, but one arrival that has already captured the hearts of the Liverpudlians in a short space of time is Kolo Touré, a free acquisition from Manchester City.
Upon the defender’s arrival at Anfield, many thought Touré would just simply fill the void left through Jamie Carragher’s retirement last season and largely be deployed as a back-up throughout the year.
But two victories and two cleansheets later, although it’s only early days, the Reds have managed to stamp down a marker in the league and Touré’s performances has been pivotal to the evident solidity in both triumphs, in particular, against Aston Villa on Saturday.
Position and Structure
Liverpool travelled to the Midlands knowing they would be in for a big test against Villa, given the fact that Paul Lambert’s side had begun the new season with three points away to Arsenal and almost claimed a scalp on Jose Mourinho’s turf in the week, narrowly losing 2-1 against Chelsea.
Rodgers saw his side win 1-2 in this fixture last season and decided to line-up with his archetypal 4-2-3-1 formation, with Philippe Coutinho, Iago Aspas and Jordan Henderson all instructed to provide the service and numbers to help Daniel Sturridge continue his current rich vein of form in front of goal.
Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva were regimented in the heart of midfield, whilst Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique provided width and energy on either flank, and it was a set-up that stifled the hosts in the first half, as Liverpool dominated the game with 61% possession and an 88% completion rate.
Touré and Agger were given the deemed ‘impossible’ task by various pundits of keeping Christian Benteke quiet in the match and despite the Belgian having a few shots on goal, it was an overall fantastic and dominant display from the newly-formed centre-back partnership.
Liverpool were fully aware of Benteke’s talismanic ability beforehand, as the striker netted on three occasions against them last season, which was more than any other player they had faced.
He is currently the top goalscorer in 2013 with 17 goals and posed an obvious threat having scored 8 goals in his last 8 games at Villa Park, but Touré now probably holds the honour of being debatably the toughest defender the 22-year-old has battled with in his short time on English soil.
Benteke even scored with his only shot in the game against Chelsea, thus any time he was able to create space, Liverpool needed their new goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet to be at his best. He had three shots on goal, two on target, but it was, in general, a performance from Touré that was reminiscent of his peak days at Arsenal.
He was only called upon to make one tackle in the game and did so successfully compared to Agger, who won two out of three challenges. The Ivorian cleared danger with a 100% (11/11) accuracy, with five of those being with his head. Benteke is renowned not only for his goals and all-round team-play, but also for his height and physicality and therefore Touré needed to be perfect when push came to shove. He won 2/3 of his aerial tests whilst Benteke only won 5/12, but for all the stats that can be presented, the best characteristic that comes with Touré’s powerful frame and intransigent attitude is his vocal organisation of the backline.
He fits into the Liverpool team, and also the Carragher role, like a glove and he is fundamentally a captain without the armband. Players such as, Steven Gerrard will adore having him sharing the responsibility to match the club’s high standards but not only will there be a step up in Agger’s game due to obtaining the vice role from Carragher, the match against Villa highlighted how much more comfortable the Dane feels playing alongside Touré rather than Martin Skrtel in Rodgers’ system.
This is the first season since August 2002 that Liverpool have kept back-to-back cleansheets in their opening two Premier League fixtures and that is a huge testament to how quickly Touré has settled in around the club. He’s a proven winner and when joining a team of Liverpool’s size, playing your home games at the bastion of invincibility that is Anfield, that is a key component that simply must be in your make up.
Sturridge’s first half strike was enough for Liverpool to claim all three points, and it was a half that they unquestionably bossed with ease. They completed 82% of their 553 passes during the 90 minutes and finished the game with 53% possession overall.
An impressive 339 passes were successful just in the first 45 minutes and Touré showed that he can easily fit into Rodgers’ fluid style of play that educates the ball to be moved forwards. He completed 96% (43/45) of his passes and 23/25 productively went towards Liverpool’s attackers.
One long ball was completed, as was one solitary back pass, but the majority of Touré’s passes were short, keeping things crisp and tidy with 42/44 being successful. 100% (14/14) of his square balls were completed and besides his defensive partner, Touré primarily picked out Henderson down the right hand side but the greatest thing to praise from his passing was the fact that he managed to pick out the striker on three occasions.
He verified all game that he has a good range of passing and the Villa performance was an improvement on his outing against Stoke, where he only completed 78% of his 36 passes against the Potters and was needed more on the defensive front in that game, winning 100% (3/3) of his tackles and making one interception.
In addition to his pace and strength, Touré is a wise head in the dressing room and can be stalwart in a team that has lofty ambitions this season. He didn’t commit any fouls during the game and was heavily reserved, composed and managed to keep his concentration on the task all game.
A brilliant performance from the team on the whole but Touré was again resolute and should be an early contender for bargain of the season. A shrewd signing by Rodgers that went suspiciously unnoticed and the surprised reaction to his current level of performance seems somewhat far-fetched.
It was only four years ago that Manchester City, boasting a new found wealth, splashed £14m on Touré from Arsenal to help push them into contention for football’s biggest honours alongside £24m Joleon Lescott.
He made 15 appearances for the Citizens last season and won 74% of his tackles and 60% of his ground duels. Touré was the vanguard of the emphatic Arsenal invincibles of 2003/4 and his tender age of 32 is his only real hiccup.
The message Liverpool gave on the social phenomenon that is Twitter after the victory at Villa was that nobody connected with the club should get ahead of themselves following two wins.
But two plus points the fans can get excited about is that the building blocks are firmly in place for Rodgers and the constant questions over who could fill the void left by the great Carragher have been answered through Touré’s entrance on the promising and developing scene at Liverpool.