Hosting an inconsistent and underachieving Aston Villa, Liverpool were forced to a 2-2 draw as an early tactical misstep from Brendan Rodgers left his side vulnerable and unable defend properly. Despite having his favourite strike partnership paired together in a fairly standard 4-4-2 (which with Coutinho and Sterling on the wings looked more like a suicidal 4-2-4), it was the central midfield pairing of Gerrard and Henderson which wasn’t able to compensate for the overly attacking lineup.
Rodgers’ choice to use Sterling and Coutinho on the wings was an aggressive and ultimately unsustainable move. With both Gerrard and Henderson often creeping forward to join the attacking play, whenever Aston Villa reclaimed the ball Agbonlahor and Benteke had plenty of space to charge at an unprotected defence. Considering that Cissokho was often caught rising up the left wing, in order to add width because of Coutinho’s tendency to cut inside, Liverpool’s defence was completely unprepared for Villa’s fast-moving and hardworking trident.
It didn’t take long to see that neither Henderson or Gerrard were truly able to perform the holding midfield role properly – an early miss by Agbonlahor and Clark’s header stamping itself against the post were premonitions of Villa’s fearless approach to the match. On the other hand the home side was having difficulty in maintaining possession, and when Aston Villa stole the ball and counter-attacked with Agbonlahor, Skrtel and Toure couldn’t keep up as Weimann poked in the opener.
On the touchline Rodgers had to wait and hope, however Coutinho and Sturridge were unable to fully integrate themselves into Liverpool’s sparse offensive advances. It was Benteke who punished Rodgers’ team again, heading in Agbonlahor’s cross after Mignolet and Johnson were both unable to intercept. Sturridge managed to pull one back right before the end of the first half, a tidy back heel by Henderson setting him up to finish the ball over Guzan. Even if Sturridge’s goal offered consolation, Aston Villa’s attacking freedom in the first half convinced Rodgers to substitute Coutinho with fellow Brazilian Lucas Leiva.
The second half began well for the home side, with Liverpool’s main tormentor Gabriel Agbonlahor replaced (due to injury problems) by Grant Holt. Lambert’s fortune took another turn for the worse when Suarez won a soft penalty (it’s difficult to tell how much contact Guzan makes with the Uruguayan) for Gerrard to tuck away and make up for his disappointing performance in midfield thus far. Half-time substitute Lucas Leiva, who had brought back some balance to the Liverpool formation had to be substituted due to injury giving Joe Allen a chance to stifle the quick-moving Villa team.
Escaping the match with a point, Rodgers will consider himself fortunate especially after a first half in which Aston Villa could have scored three or four. Travelling to face AFC Bournemouth in the FA Cup next week will be a good chance for the Liverpool manager to revise and perfect his tactics, especially with the next Premier League match being the Merseyside derby. Rodgers can’t permit another disappointing performance at Anfield, and he’ll have a variety of important tactical decisions to make as Roberto Martinez’s Everton will be eager to surpass the Reds in the table.
You can find more of Niccolo’s work on his blog Soccer Wrap Up.