Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned
Villa had arguably the toughest opening three fixtures of any team in the league, with match-ups against Arsenal on the opening day, followed by a midweek clash with Chelsea and then the visit of Brendan Rodgers' Reds.
The Midlands club claimed three points from the three games, with a win against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium before suffering a contentious defeat against Jose Mourinho's Blues.
But with a number of additions to Villa boss Paul Lambert's squad along with three very different performances in their opening games, we're learning a number of new things about Villa following a dismal 2012/13 campaign.
Here are six things we learned during Villa's fixture with Liverpool.
Christian Benteke Can Be Stopped
After three goals in his first two Premier League games of the season, the Belgian striker was thwarted in his attempts to find the net by the sturdy Liverpool defence.
Benteke scored his 11th goal in 11 matches against Chelsea in midweek—moving to the top of the goalscorer table in doing so. With 17 goals to his name, the 22-year-old has found the net in the league more than any other player in 2013, with Robin van Persie his closest rival on 14 goals.
It wasn't to be against the Reds, however, with the pairing of Kolo Toure and Daniel Agger keeping Villa's frontman relatively quiet. When he did see sight of goal, though, compatriot Simon Mignolet was on hand to ensure Liverpool a clean sheet.
Fabian Delph Is Finally Ready for the Premier League
Fabian Delph joined Villa from Leeds in 2009 as 19-year-old prospect. Used periodically during the next few seasons, though showing signs of promise, Delph failed to make an impact—partly due to injury problems—and was subsequently sent out on loan back to his hometown club in 2012.
But following his return, the combative midfielder appears to have matured and, following the retirement of Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov, has taken on responsibility in the heart of the midfield.
In an interview with the Express and Star, Delph admitted to seeing himself as a leader:
I’ve been here quite some time now. I’ve been injured for a long part of it but, regardless of how long I’ve been at the club, I always feel a responsibility to be a little bit more vocal than some of the other players. I’m quite a fiery character. I always like to shout a bit and try and get the boys fired up.
Gabby has been here a long time and he is more of a player who will lead by example. He will do some magic in the game and that will inspire the players. I’m a little bit more vocal I’d say that some. By the end of the game I get fed up of my own voice. I feel sorry for some of the boys playing alongside me.
Whether I’ve got the armband or not, I’m still the same. I like to be vocal and I think probably because I’m the third longest serving player the gaffer sees me for that reason and gives me the armband to try to encourage players.
Impressive performances against Arsenal and Chelsea were followed by another seasoned display against Liverpool, and if the midfielder continues in the same rich vein of form then he is sure to be one of the first names on the teamsheet throughout the season.
Villa Still Can't Keep a Clean Sheet
Daniel Sturridge's 21st minute strike meant that Villa went another game without stopping their opponents from scoring—something they've not been able to achieve for some time.
They will now have to wait until they face Newcastle on September 14 to try and get the monkey off their back.
Villa have failed to keep a Premier League clean sheet in 25 successive matches—a club record. Not one they're proud of.
Lambert Has Instilled Confidence in His Players
Although Lambert's side has yielded only three points from three games—two defeats following an impressive win against the Gunners—the Villa boss certainly has his team playing with a confidence that was so evidently lacking last year.
At one point during the 2012/13 campaign, Villa look destined for the drop but they found some form towards the end of the season and displayed glimpses of confidence that saw them narrowly avoid the drop.
The off-season was obviously very beneficial to the squad as they have come back with a new-found sense of belief.
With a Premier League season—although a distinctly poor one—under their belts, the younger members of the squad are now accustomed to one of football's toughest leagues and look more at ease when up against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Combined with Lambert's belief in their ability, the squad are starting to flourish and have played without fear—with no better example than during the second half against Liverpool, with the visitors having to defend resolutely for almost 45 minutes to keep out their opponents.
Villa Have More Strength in Depth
Lambert's side severely lacked strength in depth last season. With an experienced head in the form of Petrov missing from the squad, as he successfully battled acute leukaemia, Villa were missing someone that could organise, command and marshal the troops.
The threadbare squad struggled to cope in the league, with youngsters such as Nathan Baker, Chris Heard, Samir Carruthers and Graham Burke thrown in at the deep end.
And, whilst all of them are very talented, a stint in the league, whilst the side were low on confidence and often searching for a vital win, proved not to be the most fruitful of options.
However, Lambert has made a number of reinforcements throughout the summer with six signings all providing backup for his side.
Villa have already had to cope with injuries to two of their main centre-backs this season, with Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark suffering setbacks, but the summer acquisition Jores Okore was able to step in against Liverpool. After an understandably nervous start, the Danish defender found his feet and performed well alongside Ron Vlaar.
Gabriel Agbonlahor Is the Real Deal on the Wing
What a difference a year makes. Gabby Agbonlahor was first shipped out to the wing when Gerard Houllier took over as boss, with the Frenchman preferring Darren Bent up front.
Agbonlahor lost his place in his favoured position and seemingly lost confidence as he was forced to play in unfamiliar territory.
And now with Villa's star man Christian Benteke leading the line, playing from the wing is seemingly Agbonlahor's only option. But he hasn't let that affect him and is now thriving on the left.
Agbonlahor was Villa's standout player against Arsenal—although Benteke was awarded man of the match due to his two goals—winning two penalties as he tore their defence to shreds at times.
The Birmingham-born frontman, or should I say winger, was rampant against Chelsea as he provided the assist for Benteke's goal. And a solid second-half performance against Liverpool has had Villa boss Lambert tipping Agbonlahor for an England call.
In an interview with the Express and Star, Lambert said:
If he plays like that and keeps that form and that way of playing then I don’t see why not. That was just an absolutely fabulous performance it really was. His speed is there for everyone to see. Once he gets a run at you, nobody to catch him.
I just remember Gabby when Martin O’Neill was at the football club was outstanding. He made his mark in that era. I don’t know what’s happened in the last couple of seasons. It’s just a matter of trying to pick him up and get him going. From the last four or five months of last season to today he’s been outstanding, absolutely fantastic.