Liverpool suffered their second defeat only four games into the new season, as their bogey team Aston Villa beat them 1-0 to extend their remarkable unbeaten streak at Anfield to four seasons.
Compact and organised, Paul Lambert’s team frustrated their hosts throughout the 90 minutes and were good value for the win that elevates them to second place in the table. Liverpool, meanwhile, were devoid of the ingenuity and the creative spark necessary to break down a packed defence and sorely missed the injured Sturridge and the rested Sterling, who watched on from the stands and the substitutes’ bench respectively.
Following Sturridge’s injury picked up on international duty, Rodgers revised the Reds’ formation, reverting to a 4-2-3-1 of sorts as Balotelli spearheaded the attack and Henderson and Gerrard sat deeper, while Markovic and Lallana, Balotelli’s fellow home debutants, began alongside the recalled Coutinho in the attacking triumvirate behind the Italian striker.
It didn’t seem to work very effectively, particular in the first half, although that is inevitable to a certain extent when you have so many new players working together and trying to figure out how best to connect with their new teammates. In time, they’ll click and perform better than they did yesterday.
More worryingly, Liverpool’s long term defensive issues were exposed once again during the early stages, as Aston Villa routinely exploited the Reds’ nervousness at set pieces. Lacking an authority figure taking control at corners, Liverpool looked vulnerable every time Villa swung the ball into the box, and it was from just such a scenario that the visitors took the lead in scrappy fashion after nine minutes. Sakho needlessly conceded a corner, which Senderos got his head to before a game of human pinball eventually culminated in Gabriel Agbonlahor turning home from close range.
|Agbonlahor took advantage of poor defending to open the scoring at Anfield|
The former Arsenal defender was proving a particularly tricky customer at both ends of the pitch, peeling away to head another set piece over the bar minutes later and also routinely kicking out at Balotelli in a bid to wind him up. He was lucky to stay on the pitch midway through the first half when he kicked out at Balotelli off the ball, but unfortunately referee Lee Mason missed the incident.
Although he thankfully kept his cool, the rough treatment he received not just from Senderos, but also from Alan Hutton succeeded in keeping Balotelli quiet. Apart from a few off-target shots and a couple of neat passes, the number 45 was frustrated by a Villa defence coping admirably in the absence of skipper Ron Vlaar and by teammates lacking a creative cutting edge in the final third.
As the half progressed, Liverpool gained a noticeable territorial advantage and dominated possession, but all their play was in front of the Villa backline and thus easily dealt with. The closest the Reds came to clinching a leveller before the break was when Adam Lallana, whose performance proved one of few bright spots, struck just wide from the edge of the box after Balotelli held off Senderos and laid the ball off to the former Southampton midfielder.
Disappointingly, unlike in January, when the introduction of Lucas at the break changed the course of the game and enabled Liverpool to earn a point versus Villa which arguably should have been three, little changed after the interval. The Reds continued to enjoy 75% of possession, but Villa also remained steadfastly resolute at the break, and not even the much-longed for introduction of Raheem Sterling on the hour mark could put a dent in the Midlanders’ solid rear-guard.
|Not even Sterling could break down Villa's solid defence|
Rodgers took his last roll of the dice with twenty minutes left on the clock, as he made a double substitution, introducing Lambert and Borini to the fray. Neither made a significant impact, Borini’s first touch back in a Red shirt a misplaced return pass from a throw in that went straight out of play and handed the ball back to Villa. He will have to do better to return from the outskirts of the squad and earn some first team football.
The only chance Liverpool created in the closing stages came when Coutinho twisted and turned on the edge of the box before firing a brilliant shot goalwards that easily beat Guzan but couldn’t beat the framework of the goal; the ball agonisingly smashing against the post. When Sterling’s rebound was then blocked by Henderson, Kopites knew it was just going to be one of those days.
Credit to Villa, they came with a game plan and executed it perfectly. They nicked a scrappy goal and then sat back and frustrated us, which worked a treat. The task for Rodgers is to work out how to beat opponents who come to Anfield and do that. Lots of work needs to be done on the Reds’ defence as well, although that was already well known before 90 frustrating minutes yesterday teatime.
Roll on Tuesday night and the return of Champions League football! Hopefully a win over the fantastically named Ludogorets will dispel the disappointment that almost inevitably dwells on Merseyside when Villa come to visit.