How Brendan Rodgers Crafted the Ideal Away Performance Against Aston Villa
In the end it was tense, and the beads of sweat rolling down the back of Liverpool fans' necks are thoroughly excused—Aston Villa pressed and pressed, but simply could not find a way through a sterling Reds defence.
Taking a clean sheet away from Villa Park nowadays is tough. The home side don't often collect a three-point haul, but they're good for at least a goal.
Brendan Rodgers will have been well aware of this, and crafted a near-perfect strategy to combat an in-form team eager to dominate from the word go.
If there's one thing Rodgers demands from his players, it's that they control the game. That's especially important in away fixtures, and in this case, killing the crowd early was crucial.
Villa won their opening fixture away to Arsenal, then ran Chelsea extremely close at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night. The fans were feeling positive, and this was their first chance to roar their side on at home en mass.
A sell-out crowd of 42,000 showed up to gee their team up and egg them on, and Liverpool provided the perfect response: long spells of possession, passing across the back line and, for want of a better phrase, boring those inside the stadium.
It's a drill Rodgers uses frequently in training, and has his back line and goalkeeper passing from side to side on a daily basis. It's become second nature, and Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger and Kolo Toure recycled the ball slowly in deeper areas.
Villa couldn't get the ball, the crowd couldn't get behind the team. A nightmare opening 30 minutes for the home side, but as perfect as it gets for Liverpool.
Villa will always hold an ace up their sleeve as long as Christian Benteke is on the books, and it's fair to say the Belgian destroyed Liverpool's defence last season.
Two goals at Anfield in December, followed by a volleyed finish and disallowed header in the corresponding fixture late last season, ensured every Villa fan was confident he'd grab at least one goal.
But Martin Skrtel—the tormented—was absent, and Kolo Toure came in and dealt with him superbly.
He matched up to his marker physically, tracked him doggedly and was beaten only twice. On both occasions, Simon Mignolet came to the rescue with a stunning save.
The defensive line sat incredibly deep, ensuring the pace of Gabby Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann was useless in tight spaces. Villa struggled to maintain width, and that only got worse when Aleksandar Tonev replaced Weimann.
Lucas and Gerrard sat deep, and when they weren't recycling possession, they blocked off the centre of the park studiously, ensuring Liverpool's biggest weakness—a soft underbelly—was never exposed.
A 90-minute plan
Eventually the onslaught came, with Villa pressing and searching for an equaliser. They managed 60 percent possession in the second half and Fabian Delph played an exemplary game.
But it was too little, too late, and the visitors controlled the outcome for long enough to ensure they had the stamina to see out the final, frantic 15 minutes.
Perhaps 10 minutes longer and the Reds would have caved, but the 90-minute gameplan Rodgers put in place was absolutely spot on.
The game illustrated Kolo Toure's steely solidity, Rodgers' tactical acumen and Villa's dire need for a No. 10 who can break the opposition down.
Lambert has had the better of Rodgers for three seasons, but the Ulsterman is biting back.
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