This was a match between two teams, both of whom were on torrid runs of form.
Based on the last 7 matches prior to this game, Liverpool and Aston Villa had only managed 3 points and 5 points respectively; only rock-bottom Wolves had garnered less points over that same period of time.
Liverpool’s free-falling form since the turn of the year has been one of the major highlights of the Premier League in 2012 – their worst sequence of results in nearly 60 years. While Aston Villa have been spared some of the scrutiny by the general media due to their initial safe position in the league, with all the relegation candidates suddenly picking up points in recent weeks, Alex Mcleish’s side have also begun to slowly drop into the basement battle.
There was zero tactical intrigue between the two teams in this one-sided game, but as a Liverpool fan, there were some interesting features which deserve to be pointed out.
1. Liverpool players’ costly individual mistakes
Aston Villa’s opening goal was a result of many individual mistakes by Liverpool players.
First, Jon Flanagan carelessly lost the ball to former Liverpool left-back Stephen Warnock, who easily skipped past an out-of-position Flanagan and sent a cross into the box for another ex-Liverpool player, striker Emile Heskey.
Second, stand-in goalkeeper Doni flapped at the cross, allowing the ball to fall to Barry Bannan.
Third, Bannan’s cut-back was to the totally unmarked Chris Herd.
Despite his amateur mistake, it’s difficult to fault Flanagan, as the youngster is Liverpool’s third-choice right-back behind Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly. I personally also find it unfair to blame Doni fully because when the goal was scored, Doni himself wasn’t caught out of position.
Instead, I find the most fault in leaving Herd unmarked to brilliantly guide the ball into the net ala Steven Gerrard. Many of the goals Liverpool have conceded this season have come from opposition midfield runners left unmarked and untracked – Liverpool’s loss to Bolton is a particularly good example.
It highlights the painful absence of Lucas who has been ruled out of the season, Liverpool’s only midfielder who provides the defensive balance required in central midfield. Jay Spearing is Lucas’ natural replacement, yet has been shown wanting many a times already.
Liverpool’s central midfield pairing in this game was formed by Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson, two forward-thinking players who have little inclination to track back. Liverpool’s other central midfielders, Steven Gerrard and the injured Charlie Adam, have even less defensive discipline.
This is surely one area of concern for Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish (admittedly amongst many others), and since he cannot enter the transfer market yet, for now, he must drill home the importance of tracking midfield runners.
2. Henderson’s best Liverpool match yet
Even though the central midfield pairing lacked any sort of defensive ability, it was still a good overall performance from Shelvey and in particular, Henderson.
Henderson has been barracked endlessly by the majority of Liverpool supporters, but his poor form has also been due to being played out of position. The former Sunderland youngster plays best in central midfield – where he played in this match – and not at right midfield where he is usually deployed.
He made the second-highest number of passes (67) out of all the players in this game, and was successful in an incredible 17 out of 19 of his long ball attempts.
This is a huge, huge improvement from his usual standards: this season, he averages just 37.9 passes and 1.7 accurate long balls per Premier League game. Playing Henderson in his natural position in central midfield allows him to become so much more involved in the game, and as a result, much more influential as well.
Many forget that Henderson is only 21-years-old, and has plenty of time to develop as a player. Though many may disagree with me, I have hope that he will eventually grow to be an important part of the Liverpool team, much like how Lucas did.
3. Gerrard’s redeployment at right wing
Dalglish initially set up his side in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Dirk Kuyt on the right, and Gerrard playing behind Luis Suarez up front. With this tactical set-up, Liverpool could only consistently create chances in the final 10-15 minutes of the first-half, and thus Dalglish switched to a 4-4-2 formation upon the start of the second-half.
Kuyt and Gerrard essentially swapped positions, but Kuyt played much higher up than Gerrard did, partnering Suarez in attack. Gerrard was pulled back to a right wing role, and this was an important tactical shift as Liverpool benefited greatly from Gerrard’s crossing.
Out of all the players in this match, Gerrard attempted the greatest number of crosses (13), and had the greatest number of successful crosses (6). Furthermore, he had the highest cross completion rate. Easily Liverpool’s best crosser of the ball, Gerrard’s crosses were generally superb, as one of his crosses led to his team’s equaliser and another resulted in Suarez’s header hitting the post.
This match could be the platform for Gerrard to revert to the right wing – a position from which he produced his best goalscoring season under Rafa Benitez – and for Henderson to cement his spot in central midfield.
4. Misfiring Dirk Kuyt
So far, Kuyt has had a terrible season.
As a player who has scored at least 9 league goals in the past 3 seasons at Liverpool , his current contribution of just 2 league goals is a disappointing return. His lack of starts this season hasn’t helped him, but neither has his inexplicable inability to put away easy chances – exemplified when he failed to score from a position where he was almost under the crossbar.
Kuyt is the closest Liverpool player akin to a poacher (the other probably being Maxi Rodriguez), and his poor goalscoring form is undoubtedly one of the reasons for Liverpool’s low chance conversion rate.
5. Carroll-Suarez Partnership
Why doesn’t Andy Carroll start more often? More importantly, why doesn’t Carroll start with Suarez more often?
In the past 5 games in which Carroll and Suarez have started together, Liverpool have scored 13 goals (admittedly 6 of those goals came in a single match against Brighton in a cup tie).
But as SI Soccer journalist Jen Chang rightly tweeted: “Suarez’s last 4 starts with Carroll: 2 gls, 4 assists. Last 5 starts w/o AC: 2 gls, 0 assists. Both goals came only after Carroll subbed on.”
Though there has been plenty of debate regarding Suarez’s best position (as a no. 9? cutting in from the left wing? a second striker?), playing Suarez off the attacking focal point in the form of Carroll generates goals.
It wouldn’t be a guaranteed solution to Liverpool’s goalscoring issues, but it’s an avenue that Dalglish definitely should explore with greater depth, rather than give Carroll just 25 minutes to make an impact as a substitute like he did in this match.
On the whole it was a much improved Liverpool performance after that disastrous loss away at Newcastle and that insipid display against Wigan. The old problems of not converting chances have yet to be resolved: Opta states that Liverpool have now hit the woodwork 28 times in the Premier League this season, 9 more times than any other team, and that if all 28 woodwork hits had been goals instead, Liverpool would have 13 more points. But holding a positive perspective, at least Liverpool are back to creating chances.
At the same time, Liverpool must also be aware that the Aston Villa side they dominated was decimated by injuries and Alex McLeish was thus forced to name an extremely inexperienced team.
For illustration purposes, Villa’s centre-back Nathan Baker and left-back Eric Lichaj were making only their 7th and 8th Premier League appearance ever (respectively), and just their 3rd Premier League appearance this season.
Hence, Liverpool will be hoping that they can continue creating – and taking – chances against Merseyside rivals Everton in their upcoming FA Cup Semi-final, and that this wasn’t a one-off performance against an youthful Aston Villa side just 6 points off the relegation places.