Aston Villa moved into the top half of the Premier League table after a hard-fought 2-2 draw against Liverpool on Saturday, but were left to rue conceding a second-half penalty to Luis Suárez which prevented them earning all three points.
The Villans had lost just once in their last four visits to Anfield beforehand, and they looked on course to make it back-to-back wins after going 2-0 up within 36 minutes thanks to goals from Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke.
But two strikes either side of the interval evened matters up and earned Liverpool their first draw of the season on home turf, with Steven Gerrard hitting his 12th top-flight goal against Villa from the crucial spot-kick which followed Daniel Sturridge’s clever first-half chip.
Another player who extended his goalscoring record in this fixture was Benteke, who now has four goals in as many games against the Merseysiders, and his overall exceptional performance in every department for Paul Lambert’s side was pivotal to them coming away feeling proud of their display, despite aggrieved grumblings over the decision to award a penalty at the same time.
Structure & Position: What Lambert Wanted and Got From His Villa Players Against Liverpool
Lambert opted for a tactical switch in terms of formation against Liverpool by changing from the 3-5-2 structure that was deployed in their 1-2 home defeat versus Arsenal last Monday for a system that was 4-3-3 in attack, and 4-4-2 in defence, on their travels.
Leandro Bacuna, Weimann and on-loan Chelsea left-back Ryan Bertrand were all introduced into the team, whilst Brendan Rodgers made just one change to the side that won 3-5 against Stoke City in their last outing, with Sturridge replacing Lucas Leiva in a 4-4-2 lineup.
But by taking out one of their central midfielders for a striker, Liverpool were left bare in the protection of their defence for large stages of the first-half and Villa overloaded that area in terms of numbers, as their three central midfielders linked-up meticulously well with their roaming frontline.
Karim El Ahmadi, who often operates as a sitting midfielder, attacked the wide areas of the pitch brilliantly, particularly in behind Aly Cissokho down the left-hand side who advanced forwards as Philippe Coutinho floated centrally.
Whilst Jordan Henderson broke from deep at times to help support Liverpool in finding gaps between Villa’s solid defensive shape, whenever Villa seized the ball from them, with Fabian Delph making a sensational ten ball recoveries throughout the game, Gerrard was then severely isolated in the middle of the pitch.
Weimann was fantastic when dropping deep to support Villa’s midfield three without the ball, but when in possession and on the counter-attack, the Austrian forward found pockets of space in-and-around Gerrard blazingly in the first-half – also getting the better of him in the box for his goal.
But Villa didn’t just dominate in the attacking third during the opening period because of having a sporadic numerical advantage, they outfought, pressed, forced errors and completely unsettled Liverpool on the ball, whether Gerrard was on his own or Henderson was alongside him, and were good value for their commanding lead in the early phases of the match.
To sew this problem up and prevent it prolonging, Rodgers tweaked Liverpool’s midfield arrangement and got a third man in the centre, through Lucas and then Joe Allen who replaced the Brazilian after a short-lived jaunt, and from there Liverpool got a stronger foothold and took control in the second-half, whilst Villa didn’t commit as many men forwards to press as previous.
But whilst most of Villa’s best attacking play came from the eye-catching Gabriel Agbonlahor, who found huge amounts of space down the flanks and provided both assists, firstly from the left and then the right, for each goal, Benteke put in one of his best showings of the season by stamping his authority in the attacking third like he did at Anfield last campaign.
Attacking Threat: Benteke Was Back To His Old, Dangerous Self Against Liverpool
Even though Liverpool’s defensive issues at present are increasingly evident, with star centre-back Mamadou Sakho missing through a hamstring problem, they managed to seriously keep Benteke quiet in the reverse fixture at the start of this season yet he was completely dominant this time around.
Whilst the Belgium international had just one attempt on goal and scored from it, he was never really a threat in the box having received the ball on 58 occasions in total, with just three of those being inside the penalty area.
Benteke was mainly a difficult presence aerially for Liverpool to cope with, whilst his positional movement into wide areas, as Weimann was stationed centrally and Agbonlahor operated on whichever other flank was free, and bringing others into play was incredible at times for Villa’s fast-paced, counter-attacking gameplan.
Villa’s renowned direct punt from Brad Guzan towards Benteke was the highest pass combination during the game – with the USA man finding the striker in 16 instances – and he situated himself to win these flick-ons in order to create space in behind for Weimann and Agbonlahor to run into.
Lambert’s midfield three of El Ahmadi, Westwood and Delph all boast a fantastic work rate, but the use of the direct hit from Guzan to Benteke bypasses them because they’re not natural ball-playing midfielders who can build attacking moves, thus they stay compact and win the second balls from Benteke’s mighty leap and aerial gains.
Throughout the clash, Benteke won 13 out of his 18 aerial duels and as the above image shows, most of them were won in between Liverpool’s lines. Rodgers’ side made a monstrous 54 clearances in total, compared to Villa’s 28, and it was clear that this direct approach at times caused them problems.
For his goal, which was his sixth of the 13/14 season and the fourth with his head, Benteke done well to score, despite being just a few yards out, because he had to react quickly after the decisive touch from his national team counterpart Simon Mignolet, who has now made four mistakes that have led to goals conceded so far this season, brought it into his path.
But whilst he may have scored to make it two in two for him, Benteke’s endeavour and superb willingness to win aerial battles, hold the ball up, bring others into play and move into areas to create chances were all arguably the best parts of his performance against Liverpool.
The direct link from defence to attack is a strong part of Villa’s attacking play – with the likes of Libor Kozák, Nicklas Helenius and Grant Holt also within the ranks that can provide the aerial strength that Benteke does – but Villa can mix things up, especially away from home, and give anybody in the Premier League a game through their pace and energy – which was throughly highlighted against Liverpool.
Villa switched their play up, either by going direct towards Benteke and looking for knockdowns for runners off him, or by winning possession deep into their own half and breaking quickly through their sharp speed.
Benteke, who created 53 chances for Villa last season, created four against Liverpool and he managed to get into good wide areas, as Villa looked to break, and be a potent out-ball that Liverpool struggled to mute sufficiently.
The four key passes against Liverpool now takes his tally up to 33 chances created for this season, just one less than their current highest creator in Ashley Westwood with 34.
In the opening minute of the first-half, the former KRC Genk man towered above Kolo Touré and put Agbonlahor 1v1, in which the Englishman really should have done better as his toe-poke went just past Mignolet’s post.
And in the first goal’s build-up, Delph recovered possession in his own half, with Liverpool having piled plenty of players forward, and found Benteke out wide who slid a perfectly weighted pass down the line for Agbonlahor to beat Touré for pace, and set up Weimann with a low drive.
All match, Benteke was a live wire by popping up in the right zones on the field and aiding his team more through his creativity, via his heading power, blistering pace and good passing incision, than testing Mignolet himself.
He completed the most and attempted the greatest amount of passes in the attacking third out of everybody on the pitch, successfully delivering 56.7% (21) of his 37 tried passes, whilst his overall pass completion in all areas was 65%.
When Liverpool probed and tried to pierce Villa’s resolute standing, with Suárez often being the one to drop deep to make something happen as he did by starting off the sumptuous move that conjured up Sturridge’s goal, Benteke remained up top with Agbonlahor to quickly hold and wait for runners, should the rest of those in Claret and Blue win the ball back – which is what happened for Weimann’s goal.
The 23-year-old recovered possession four times throughout the game and won three fouls between the midfield lines for Villa, and although his defensive work wasn’t “obvious” because he didn’t make a tackle or an interception, he was strong for Villa defensively by keeping hold of possession and providing the outlet to make quick bursts up the pitch.
Villa had a good portion of possession with 44%, although they completed just 66% of their 336 attempted passes, and Benteke helped relieve pressure on the defence when Liverpool looked to find openings by popping up in good regions to receive it so many times, especially when the lethal counter-attack took a blow through Agbonlahor being subbed off injured after 49 minutes.
By and large, Villa will feel hard done by over the awarding of the penalty for Suárez, but as Lambert said himself, there were many positive aspects in such an outstanding performance on the day.
Even after Liverpool got back level, Villa kept their shape well and hardly gave Liverpool many clear-cut opportunities to get the winner whereas in the first-half, it was an exhibit that was arguably their best 45 minutes of the season – and one of Lambert’s most prominent whilst at the helm.
Villa were exceptional in the opening spell, with every player in particular coming to the fore, but Benteke’s display was instrumental in the attacking side of things, and also the creative, therefore playing a huge part in them preserving their impressive record at Anfield of late and still walking away with a great point.
Christian Benteke heat map via Daily Mail Online ‘Match Zone’ & Stats images via the excellent FourFourTwo StatsZone app.