He did it. Tim Sherwood improved his ratio of season to cup final appearances by defeating Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool in what was a comfortable win for Villa in the FA Cup Semi final.
Taking nothing away from Sherwood, he just followed what the likes of Swansea, Arsenal and Manchester United have done in the previous month to trouble Liverpool and yet again Brendan Rodgers had no answer for it. The concerning part for Liverpool fans is the fact Rodgers if anything played into Tim Sherwood’s tactics with his team selection and set up.
Like in the aforementioned games, the opposition outnumbered Liverpool in midfield. To combat this Liverpool had their midfield two sit a little deeper so Villa couldn’t get men running in behind them. This meant immediately Liverpool were on the defensive and it’d be a struggle to build as Sterling would be isolated upfront.
Sherwood knew the Liverpool left side was there strongest and their right the weakest. Villa concentrated their attacks down the left with Richardson easily getting free of Gerrard which meant the left side was Jack Grealish, Fabian Delph and Kieron Richardson against their counterparts; Lazar Markovic, Jordan Henderson and Emre Can. All three of those Liverpool players aren’t great defensively and all offer more going forward so by pinning these back and putting them on the defensive Villa had the upper hand here.
Another problem Villa caused here was when Grealish or N’Zogbia dropped to receive the ball, it meant Lovren and Emre Can stepped up and followed them which left holes in the Liverpool back three on a regular basis and at times it was 2 v 2. Jack Grealish was impressive throughout and didn’t let the occasion get to him. He often dropped deep meaning Villa had another extra man in midfield. This may have been done so the wing backs, Moreno and Markovic would have to come inside and help the midfield which then nullifies the wide attacking threats they both possess. The movement of the Villa players had Liverpool chasing shadows and created so much space. This 2 v 2 scenario was highlighted in the first half when Dejan Lovren stopped a Villa pass that would’ve left N’Zogbia with a clear run at goal near the half way line due to the movement of the Villa front three.
Villa also pressed the outside Liverpool centre backs. Usually an outlet for Mignolet to pass to on goal kicks it meant he had to kick long and with very little height in the final third it allowed Villa to get the ball back with ease and once again put them on the front foot. It wasn’t even aggressive pressing, it just didn’t give Liverpool the option to play out from the back which disrupts their passing and ability to build.
The Second half
After initial tweaks in the first half Liverpool made a change at half time which saw them go like for like with what Villa had and also saw them revert to a system that served them so well last season during their title push.
Gerrard as the deepest midfield in 1-2 midfield was meant to gain Liverpool some control in midfield. For it to be as effective as last season then Liverpool would have to set a high press which would mean the front three and Allen and Henderson would press the ball and this would then give Gerrard more time on the ball when he did have it and he’d be shielded which is needed so his lack of pace wouldn’t be highlighted. However, Rodgers must have had in mind the fact Villa had such an athletic midfield so he didn’t fully commit to the 2 in midfield pressing.
As the 2 midfielders didn’t do as much work as last season it put more pressure on Gerrard, with his job being to shield the newly formed back 4 it meant he was getting dragged into positions he isn’t comfortable in by the impressive N’Zogbia and Grealish.
Their clever movement meant Gerrard was tracking them which left space that he’d vacated and the Villa midfield made the most of this and exploited the space. This constant threat could’ve been the reasoning Henderson and Allen could push and press because they were constantly being turned around and having to track the runners.
The Villa second goal had N’Zobgia beating Gerrard to two headers near the half way line and a turn over in possession meant Gerrard was never getting back to defend this. It meant the two centre backs, Lovren and Skrtel, were exposed and dragged out of their positions and with the Villa runners from deep Liverpool couldn’t cover it.
This happened on a few occasions with both Delph and N’Zogbia making runs across Lovren who had to make a last ditch tackle after Benteke took Skrtel out of the game. The switch to Gerrard at defensive midfielder was the wrong move by Rodgers against a very direct and quick Villa side playing with no fear.
Plaudits go to Sherwood and rightly so, he set Villa up to play in a way that suited them and it was a way Liverpool have trouble with. Villa had a weakened XI and Baker had to come off in the first half which aided the Liverpool goal. Had that not had happened you’d be wondering if Liverpool would have troubled Shay Given.
Gerrard being involved from the start was always going to favour the pace of the Villa side and leave Liverpool on the back foot. If anything the change at half time helped Villa as there was more room to exploit with Liverpool playing a back 4 shielded by a restricted Gerrard.