Following Liverpool’s lesson in winning ugly from Aston Villa on Saturday, what can we take from it without completely overreacting to what was, after all, a bitter pill to swallow. In light of the wave of optimism Liverpool fans are riding, somewhat perilously right now, what have we learned?
Most of this week’s five lessons are a tad on the harsh side, but then as wisdom has it, the best ones in life usually are.
1. Brendan Rodgers had the wrong focus – Yes, the team is now in the Champions League and, yes, we all want to do well in the competition. However, having cleared that up, what is the club’s priority? A certain somebody who managed LFC said once: “Never mind Europe. It’s been a great thing for Liverpool, a great thing for the country, but this is our bread and butter, this is the one we want”. I couldn’t agree more.
2. The team will struggle without Daniel Sturridge and Sterling – I know it’s early doors in the season but this is already clear. Liverpool, following their exploits of last season, will be one of the teams to beat this year. Aston Villa are the first of many, many teams that will come to Anfield, try to knick a goal and then sit the game out almost literally, in their own half. The Reds seemed to have very few ideas and those they did have seemed very predictable. They missed the guile and invention of both those guys.
3. The squad is already at it’s limit – We saw that even despite the summer transfers in, the squad is currently close to it’s limits. For all the moaning about the flat performance, Rodgers did start the game without three of his best players. Notwithstanding Sterling being left out strategically, they also missed Joe Allan’s energy in addition to the attacking threat of Sturridge. I’d even go so far as to add Emre Can too.
4. The defence is much better than last season – Despite giving a soft goal away, the main contributor to the end result was the side’s lack of invention in the final third. The defence I thought actually played quite well. Mamadou Sakho can be a tad ropey under pressure, but he needs a good run of games in the side to cement an understanding with his defensive colleagues. For this reason, I don’t think Martin Skrtel was particularly missed on Saturday. The only downside was the goal and the way in which it was conceded.
5. It’s not the end of the world… IF – Rodgers can get his priorities right. What I’ve admired about him is that he learns quickly when he’s made a mistake, and I think he will have to reevaluate things going forward. It is, indeed early days and there’s one hell of a lot of football to be played this season for us to get too downhearted. I appreciate the need to protect Raheem Sterling but I genuinely believe the lad could have made the weekend’s game and sat out Tuesday’s match instead.
All things considered, I’m still optimistic for Liverpool. A top four place is a MUST for Liverpool and Rodgers needs to place this above European concerns. It’s no use putting the team in the position of having to win it to stay in it next season like they did in 2005. Needless to say, he needs Allen, Can and Sturridge back as soon as possible and if this can be achieved over the next month, with Lallana and Balotelli finding their feet in the team, then there’s no reason why a good run of results can’t be achieved.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @Mrbengreen
1) New boys need more time to settle in
On a day when both Sturridge and Sterling were both absent from the starting line-up, much of the pre-match buildup talk circulated around Liverpool’s new look attacking front: Mario Balotelli, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic. Much was expected of this trio, who have cost the Reds around £60 million in transfer fees this summer, but against an organized Aston Villa yesterday, all three did not quite fully impress while ultimately failing to break down the visitors’ resolute defence. Lallana had looked impressive at certain points of the game, with his clever runs into the box and the centre of the pitch as he linked up pretty well with Henderson and Coutinho. However the former Saints man had looked frustrated whenever he did not see much of the ball and picked up an early booking for a rash challenge.
Markovic on the other flank looked lively in the opening half, making several decent runs down his flank and into the box while seeing an early volley rise over the bar and a header going just over. As for Balotelli, the former Manchester City man was largely anonymous throughout his 71 minutes on the pitch, with the Villains starving him of supply and space. A dipping shot from the edge of the box which looked destined for the top corner had it not taken a deflection off a Villa defender in the first half was perhaps the Italian’s highlight of the game. It’s still early days for Liverpool this season, but it is clear that the new signings will be needing some time to fully settle into a Liverpool side who are still recovering from the loss of Luis Suarez.
2) Liverpool’s defensive problems looks largely unsolved
Liverpool’s title push last season was arguably hampered in the end by their defensive problems, as seen in the heartbreaking 3-3 draw with Palace last season, when the Reds somehow let a 3-0 lead slip through their fingers in a matter of minutes. Rodgers had certainly looked to fix those problems in the summer, by bringing in Dejan Lovren from Southampton in a massive deal and signing Spanish duo Manquillo (loan) and Moreno.
However, it was similar defensive issues that arose again yesterday, with Villa scoring after nine minutes from a corner which Liverpool could have dealt with better. Senderos had saw his header from the corner blocked but not cleared, and a resulting scramble in the box ended up with Agbonlahor squeezing a shot past Mignolet and into the net. In fact, Villa had the right to be upset at not going two up when Senderos failed to divert a header into the net when he was somehow left totally unmarked to rise high and make good contact with a Westwood free-kick.
While there was the unstoppable Suarez and Sturridge last season whose goals were always there to bail out the backline’s mistakes, at Anfield yesterday there was no bail out for the poor defending against Villa’s set pieces.
3) Liverpool seem to struggle against deep lying sides
It isn’t the first time Liverpool have found themselves beaten by a team that lay deep after going ahead. Last season against Chelsea at Anfield, the Reds struggled to break down a Chelsea side that had decided to “park the bus” after capitalizing on a rare Gerrard error in the first half. Similar to yesterday’s second half of the game, Liverpool raised their overall performance and dominated possession in the second half but ultimately failed to find the cutting edge in the last third of the pitch.
With sides now recognizing the Reds’ for their fast-paced attacking style, more and more sides may in turn decide to sit deep whenever they visit Anfield and Liverpool will need to find an alternative to breaking down these deep-lying sides.
It’s not often we’ve seen games like that under Brendan Rodgers. Games where we completely failed to create any notable chances, failed to penetrate and pose any sort of threat to the opposition. Games where our attack lacked pace, tempo, urgency, or incisiveness. At Anfield especially, we’re used to seeing Liverpool fly out of the blocks and be at the opposition from the off. And goals were pretty much guaranteed.
But let’s not pretend things haven’t changed from last season, because they have. We are now without one of the world’s best players, and started the game yesterday with six new signings on the pitch; three of them making their home debuts. We couldn’t expect them to instantly click and form devastating combinations. But we could certainly expect to see more than what we did yesterday.
For what it was worth, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic did show some individual moments of their footballing talent. Mario Balotelli up front was quiet, but was feeding off scraps and kept drifting out wide to find the smallest patch of space. Philippe Coutinho too struggled to find the room he wanted to play with, and kept coming very deep to receive the ball, while Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson, in the second half particularly, both kept advancing forward trying to find an opening, but instead just made the game even more congested. The performance as a whole was the very epitome of a team who isn’t yet gelled as a squad of players. No one was on the same wavelength; it was very much eleven players each trying to play their own way.
The international break prior to this game did not help at all. After a tepid opening two games, we looked to be back to our usual selves with the Tottenham performance and result. But international duty came along, and we saw Daniel Sturridge pick up an injury, and Raheem Sterling return only fit enough for the bench. Joe Allen and Emre Can also got sidelined for a while, and on top of Martin Skrtel’s absence, this meant that straight away Brendan Rodgers found his hand forced in a lot of decisions he needed to make.
With Villa getting their early goal, there was very little chance for us to settle into the game, which is what we desperately needed. Just a period where we could play patient football, get everyone a few touches of the ball, and establish everyone’s role within the team. But too soon we were playing with panic and nervousness, and for a team where over half the players were new recruits, you could see the mentality and character that we had last season has not yet been redeveloped.
The early moments of the game were the only time Villa threatened our goal at all, but it goes to show the improvements we need to make in defence that their small period of dominance resulted in a goal, and very nearly followed up with a second when Philippe Senderos headed over after escaping his marker too easily. We just look shaky every time we come under an attack, whether it be in open play or from a set piece. This new backline will take time to adjust to each other, like the rest of the team, and they deserve a run of games before they are too harshly judged. But we need to see improvements quickly for them to have earned the right to prove they are the right defenders for us in the long run.
The term ‘park the bus’ gets thrown around far too easily nowadays, so I’m not going to accuse Aston Villa of doing it. They got an early goal, and sensibly chose to defend it instead of bombard forward mindlessly. And very effectively they defended it, at that. We were poor, but Villa set up well to deal with everything we had to throw at them. We tried occasionally to pass the ball around at the back to lure them out, but they weren’t falling for it and we knew the clock was ticking.
We can make excuses if we want, but overall the blame has to fall on us, as we simply weren’t good enough. But that isn’t to say we won’t get better, and only time will tell what sort of impact these three dropped points will have at the end of the season.
Something that did occur to me yesterday was that of our opening games of Southampton (H), Man City (A), Tottenham (A), and Aston Villa (H), in the corresponding fixtures last season we only picked up four points. This time we have six. So if you are really feeling desperate for a positive spin on things, there you go.
More likely though, you’re baffled at Aston Villa having well and truly cemented themselves as our Anfield bogey side, and frustrated at us having nothing to show from what should have been a routine win for a team considering themselves title contenders. But we’ve got the return of the Champions League to look forward to on Tuesday, and a good start in that, and a positive performance and result against West Ham on Saturday, and this time next week we could be looking at a very different picture.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)