Aston Villa came to Anfield and put in a strong performance right from the off, however only doing enough to earn a draw when they may have been four or five up by half-time.
Liverpool’s abysmal first half added further misery to their recent outings in this fixture. At Anfield last season Aston Villa sat back in a 3-5-1-1 formation, with Andi Weimann slightly behind Benteke. They invited Liverpool into their trap and proved to be explosive on the counter-attack, as the young pair frightened the life out of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger.
Paul Lambert did things slightly different this year, going with a 4-3-3 which allowed him to utilise all three of his attacking assets in Agbonlahor, Weimann and a finally-scoring-again Benteke. This selection paid off for Lambert, with Agbonlahor grabbing two assists, one for Weimann and one for Benteke.
The shaded area on the tactics board indicates the zone of the pitch where Aston Villa first initiated their pressure – extremely high up the field in comparison to last season. Each press from the front three was supported by Delph and El Ahmadi providing a second wave of pressure, as well as the full backs (Betrand more so than Bacuna) getting tight to Sterling and Coutinho.
This pressure rattled Liverpool, who couldn’t settle into their passing game as fluidly as they would have hoped. As a result, not one of the starting eleven had a good first half – simple passes wouldn’t sit right, and the ball was given away on a regular basis. Here was how they lined up:
Rodgers went with 4-4-2 as predicted to reunite Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez up front. Gerrard and Henderson started as a two in midfield, with Gerrard slightly more reserved and deeper between the two centre-backs. Meanwhile, as described by Rodgers before the game, Henderson would have a bit more licence and look to make his penetrating runs through the middle to be a threat from midfield.
As for the movement of Sturridge and Suarez, they would look to pull out into wide areas, drop deep to receive, and also make runs around and beyond each other with the connection they have been continuously strengthening.
None of this went to plan for Rodgers in the first half, and it was an agonising watch for Liverpool fans, for whom the first Aston Villa goal was ever-looming straight from kick-off. Despite Sturridge pulling one back before the whistle, it was obvious at half-time that Rodgers would have to make changes, and that he did.
A very poor performance from Philippe Coutinho on the left saw him withdrawn and replaced with Lucas Leiva, who was unfortunate not to start. A key problem in the first half with Gerrard in the holding role was an inability to hold onto the ball with so much Villa pressure, which meant Liverpool couldn’t retain possession and build fluidity. Lucas coming into this position provided more solidity, passes that were more carefully chosen, and also gave Gerrard the freedom his game thrives on higher up the field.
Unfortunately for Lucas, it was only 21 minutes later that he was stretchered off with another knee problem, and was replaced by Joe Allen – a player capable of fulfilling the same duties as Lucas to a similar degree. Henderson meanwhile was playing a hybrid role on the left side of the midfield. He combined his protective duties in the wide areas with the bursting central runs he usually makes from his position in the midfield 3.
Here you can see Sturridge dropping deep to receive on the half turn, Henderson times his movement to break beyond El Ahmadi and become a threat.
As the move breaks down, notice Lucas in the bottom left hand corner, who will come across to the left hand side to cover Henderson. As a side-note, the poor positioning of Cissokho wide on the left leaves Liverpool vulnerable to the counter-attack and they nearly pay the price on this occasion.
The switch of tactics and more than likely some harsh words from Rodgers half-time was enough to level things up in the second half. Liverpool eventually produced a performance resembling more solidity at the back and better fluidity going forwards, but there will be huge question marks hanging over the first half showing.
Can Steven Gerrard be risked in the holding role again and does it sacrifice some of the screening protection required in front of the currently shaky back four? In light of the Lucas injury, should Joe Allen be the man to step into the holding role on a temporary basis? Will Rodgers keep this 4-4-2 system for the next league game or revert back to his 4-3-3 with one of the strikers playing wide or deep in a 4-2-3-1?
Liverpool face Everton and Arsenal at Anfield in the next two home league games and Rodgers will be looking for a swift resolution to some of these problems (not to mention a back four which continues to leak goals consistently).
Liverpool 2 Aston Villa 2 Statistics
Onto the statistics from the game, and you can see that Liverpool eventually won the possession battle with 55.7% after their terrible start, dominating a lot more in the second half. A poor return for passing at Anfield, with only 371 to Villa’s 222 accurate passes, while accuracy was also below average at 82%, while Villa were also poor at 66%.
In the final third Liverpool were just about the better side, recording 65% accuracy (they can usually expect closer to 80% on a good day at Anfield). Aston Villa were very explosive on the attack, which perhaps rushed their play in the final third, and explains their poor return of 54% accuracy in this zone.
The teams were relatively well matched with regards to chances on goal. Aston Villa’s first half was littered with chances, including the two goals and Ciaran Clark hitting the post, and they finished with only 3 shots on target from 12. Liverpool had 6 shots on target from 14 and were not as sharp or creative as usual. In terms of attacking, Liverpool were more dominant in terms of dribbling, with 21 attempted dribbles (9 successful) compared to Aston Villa’s 9 (4 successful) – again, their play was far more direct in this sense.
Both teams made a total of 18 successful tackles and interceptions, however as you can see, Liverpool’s greatest stumbling block was yet another 3 defensive errors, one of which led to a goal (Mignolet’s led to the goal, the other two by Gerrard led to shots).
Aston Villa now sit 10th in the league table with that point, as Liverpool just cling onto fourth place, hoping their Merseyside rivals can drop points on Monday against West Brom.